While providing meals for the 'hard to house' benefits many, it's unclear who might foot the bill. A look at the logistics.
Boomer Bundy takes a wide, careful turn at the cobblestone intersection in Gastown where Gassy Jack’s statue stands watch. Bundy is pulling about 120 pounds of hot food on a two-wheeled trailer behind his bicycle, bound for some of Vancouver’s hungriest.
“I’ve spilled these before, and it ain’t pretty,” he tells me, before departing from a Hastings Street garage. That’s his response to my asking if I could help out by attaching a trailer to my bike. I understand. An accident from a well-intentioned reporter is probably the last thing he wants to deal with.
Bundy is a volunteer for the Lunch Peddlers, a program run by the Portland Hotel Society. It operates out of the Smith-Yuen building, a 53-unit residence for seniors with mental illnesses. The small kitchen there has two full-time cooks and several volunteers who produce approximately 850 meals per day which are delivered — via bicycle — to 13 other PHS residences in the neighbourhood.
When Smith-Yuen was built in 2005, it came with funding to pay for a kitchen, cook, and one hot meal per resident each day (although meals are subsidized, tenants pay $40 per month to take part in the program).
Getting this food funding package was a struggle, says PHS executive director Liz Evans. The society runs 16 housing projects in the Downtown Eastside that house people who struggle with homelessness, addiction and mental illness.
For a long time, the PHS was fighting for things like door locks, plumbers and more staff support at its residences, says Evans, “and food was at the very bottom of that list.”
But that’s changing. As the provincial, city and federal governments have teamed up to address deplorable living conditions in many of the city’s SROs, they have turned their attention not just to wiring and plumbing, but also cooking amenities.
A supportive housing project on Howe Street for people with HIV/AIDS opened last year, the ninth of a 14-project housing deal between the city and the province. Run by the McLaren Housing Society, it will include supports like community meals and kitchens.
And according to BC Housing, increasing kitchen amenities is on the table as part of a recently-announced P3 project to renovate 13 SROs in the Downtown Eastside.
“We’ve come a long way,” says Evans. “And now food is on the agenda as something that governments need to start figuring out how to fund.”
Lunch peddlers launch
It became clear to PHS staff that food was as important as bricks and mortar not long after it took over the Portland Hotel in 1991. They had a nutritionist come in and assess residents, says Evans, who reported back that 80 per cent were undernourished.
PHS saw an opportunity to address the problem when residents were forced to move out of the Portland for a renovation (which took nine years to complete, officially opening under its original handle, the Pennsylvania Hotel, in 2009.)
When residents were moved to a building down the street, PHS fund-raised to build a kitchen facility on the ground floor. They got all the equipment donated, says Evans, and negotiated a deal where the kitchen — which became its own separate entity, the Potluck Café — would provide one hot meal per day to the residents in that building.
The impetus for the Lunch Peddlers program came in 2006, says Evans, when a female relative of a young man living at the Stanley Hotel approached staff and told them how much better he did when he when he was eating. She arranged specifically for him to get food, with money she sent, and wanted others to have the same advantage.
Staff members drafted a proposal to expand food production at Smith-Yuen — the only of PHS’s buildings with kitchen capacity — so that meals could be delivered to other PHS projects. The relative (whom Evans lost touch with after she moved away from Canada) came back “literally within two or three weeks,” says Evans, “with a cheque for $90,000.”
That was enough to get the program going for a full year. PHS added four hours of cook time to the kitchen, and launched the Lunch Peddlers. It also paid for a small honorarium — $20 for a three-hour shift, says Mike Bodnar, director of food programs — for Bundy and other volunteers.
In that first year, food service was expanded by 150 meals per day, says Evans, which were delivered first to the Stanley and the Washington hotels.
Since then, with help from grant funding, private philanthropy, and funds from BC Housing, the kitchen at Smith-Yuen has expanded to what it is today, with the goal of eventually providing one hot meal for every PHS tenant, every day.
“We’re stretching absolutely everything we can to creatively meet as many food needs as we can,” says Evans. “We’re trying to understand how to fill the gaps.”
Lunch on a shoestring
They aren’t the only ones. Many front-line social service providers have cobbled together food and snacks where they can, but have done so without explicit funding. In a sector that serves people who struggle to meet basic food and housing needs, there has historically been no budget line for food.
If service providers want to help their clients with meals or snacks, they must do so with donations (which are often unreliable and of poor nutritional quality) or by drawing from already tight operational budgets, says Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.
She and professor Aleck Ostry, a community health researcher at the University of Victoria, have compiled an inventory of charitable food provision in five cities across Canada: Toronto, Halifax, Victoria, Edmonton and Quebec City. In Victoria, they estimate that in a course of a month, 70,000 meals and snacks are being provided, and almost 13,000 people are receiving groceries from a broad spectrum of agencies.
“Again, practically no one with any funding, or if they did have funding, a fairly minimal amount,” says Tarasuk. “You could see that as an amazing success story — look at how they’re managing to do all this feeding on a shoestring budget.”
However, she questions how well this massive amount of charitable food provisioning is actually meeting the needs of the clients. “And that’s a question that very few people seem to be able to ask.”
Staff at PHS say their meal programs have not only improved the health of tenants, but also the atmosphere in the buildings.
“Residents have self-reported having more contact with staff,” says Coco Culbertson, project director at PHS. “They know the lunch peddlers, the delivery guys, and it adds to the feeling that they’re part of a community.”
‘Most wouldn’t starve without it’
People certainly seem to know Bundy. Smokers out front of the Stanley greet him when he comes in, and riding through Pigeon Park one man calls out, “What’s for lunch?”
“No, for real,” he adds, implying that he’s not just razzing Bundy, but wondering what to expect when he returns home later.
“Lasagna!” Bundy replies over his shoulder, as he pedals by.
His first stop is The Rainier, followed by The Beacon, a low-barrier supportive housing building focused on harm reduction. That means people are allowed to use, and staff hand out needles for drug users who want them. The residents, says tenant support worker Dani Morett, are older and tend to be more stable.
She will hand out the individual portions that Bundy has brought for the tenants. After 3 p.m., the leftovers are up for grabs for those who want second and thirds. If someone shows up late and doesn’t get a meal, sometimes they’re angry.
“When there is food, when they’re full, people are a lot calmer,” says Morett.
The support workers at other buildings we visit — the Stanley, Rainier, Onsite and Sunrise — all say that the food PHS provides is tasty and much appreciated by tenants.
Fred McComber, who is manning the front desk at the Sunrise hotel when Bundy arrives, says “people come running” for the meals. “It’s certainly sought after,” he says.
Does he think that meals play a role in reducing the number of violent or aggressive incidents, as researcher Karen Cooper has suggested? He’s not sure about that. McComber says he makes about one 911 call per week, almost always for fights or assaults.
He says the people who probably depend most on the meals — those who rarely leave their rooms, let alone the building — aren’t the ones making trouble. For those who do, there are other options.
“Everyone knows the circuits, the schedules to get free food,” he says. Having meals delivered to the building makes for easy accessibility, “but most wouldn’t starve without it.”
Money on the table
When PHS started branching out their meal program in different locations, they measured the body mass index of patients six weeks in, and then three months in. At the Beacon Hotel, says Culbertson, they saw weight increases of between 22 and 32 per cent.
Evans says PHS did share the results of their weight monitoring with BC Housing, to help make a case for a larger kitchen facility. A new project is opening at the corner of Princess and Alexander Streets in several years, says Evans, and they hope to move the kitchen there.
“Having a central facility and a budget for food in each of our project budgets would solve a lot of our problems,” says Evans.
According to Seamus Gordon, senior public relations officer, BC Housing provides close to $300,000 per year for food and meal programs in approximately 12 SROs in Vancouver. As part of the upcoming renovations to 13 provincially owned SROs, BC Housing will increase the number of communal kitchen areas, adds Gordon.
As for the City, it currently does not provide any funding specifically for food in supportive housing or shelters, says Councilor Kerry Jang. It does provide land and staff support, and some grant funding to community kitchen programs.
And when the City partnered with the province to launch the Homeless Emergency Action Team (HEAT) in 2008, it stipulated that food at emergency shelters must provide two meals a day that met Canada Food Guide standards.
“We made sure, as part of the funding envelope, that this was provided,” says Jang, although the City doesn’t monitor nutritional quality.
A 2010 report on HEAT found that the meals provided an incentive for people to come inside, and helped stabilize behaviour.
“After a good evening meal,” the report notes, “people who had previously been considered ‘hard to house’ became easier for shelter staff to work with.”
Tarasuk says its “really valuable” to look at the associations that PHS and Karen Cooper are making between food, health, and safety. It’s clear people who live in poverty have poor health, which becomes more expensive for the health care system, explains Tarasuk.
That’s why the funding question is an important one.
“At the end of the day what we’d want is something that would enable people to eat three square meals a day, seven days a week,” says Tarasuk. A big part of the problem is people not having enough money to buy their own food.
“Surely,” she says, “the most efficient way would be for us to give them… a living wage, increased welfare rates.”
Tarasuk also acknowledges that in some settings, like SROs and supportive housing, there’s a need for people to have meals provided for them.
“For that to be effective from a nutritional standpoint,” says Tarasuk, “there needs to be money on the table and some accountability.”