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Fighting food insecurity in rural communities 

3 MIN READ

A tiny arm proudly offers Amy Willis a bag stuffed full of potatoes. “That’s perfect! Okay, do another one with carrots?” she asks. 

Two of Amy’s eight children stand in the back of their family van and help organize fresh produce for Full Bellies, the volunteer-run food sharing program she founded. 

“I started this just with a few homeschooling friends because we couldn’t afford more than one type of fruit for a snack for our million kids. We started sharing bulk boxes of food and it just grew and grew and grew.”

Full Bellies sources fresh produce from wholesalers and allows customers to select the foods that their household needs most.  

Amy is often met with wonder when she makes the delivery run from Full Bellies’ storefront in St. Isidore to Hawkesbury, with stops along the way:  

“I hear a lot of ‘oh my goodness, I can’t believe you’re doing this, this is crazy, how are you able to do this?’ It’s because there is such a food crisis right now where it’s cheaper for families to buy boxed food to feed their kids and crap snacks than to get fruit. Which is totally unacceptable.”

Anyone can buy from Full Bellies, which is partly how Amy is able to sustain the program. One woman pays twenty dollars for a zucchini, because she can. The program is successful because people who have the means to pay full price balance out the steep discounts targeted towards people and families in need. 

“It’s geared towards neighbourhoods where people are struggling, neighbourhoods with the elderly who don’t have cars, single parents; the sort of thing where mobility is an issue and finances are an issue.”

The harms of food insecurity

For parents, children, and others who make up the one in eight food insecure Canadians, daily life can be overwhelmed by a grumbling stomach and the question of where the next meal will come from, if there will be one. 

Food insecurity can mean parents skipping meals so children can eat, buying cheap foods that are low in nutritional value just to have food on the table, or going without food in order to pay other bills. 

Children from food insecure households suffer from reduced attention spans in class, hindering their ability to focus and succeed. Canadians from food insecure households are more likely to have moderate or severe anxiety and are susceptible to a variety of physical and chronic health concerns such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. 

While food insecurity impacts both urban and rural communities, the distance to grocery stores or infrequent access to transportation in rural communities can contribute to increased levels of food insecurity. 

Uniting to address the challenge

United Way East Ontario is co-chair, alongside Prescott-Russell Community Services, of the steering committee for the Prescott-Russell Community Food Forum (PRCFF). The forum unites around 60 organizations in the Prescott-Russell area, bringing them to one table to facilitate discussion about food gaps in the community and how to use collective resources to fill those needs. 

Louis Béland, executive director of the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Network, shared that, in the past, it had been hard to know the true impact of food insecurity in Prescott-Russell because of a lack of data-sharing between organizations.  

“To me, the PRCFF is about bringing the people together, bringing all that data together and then being able to use that as a whole community. United Way has done so much work data-wise in the past ten years. We can’t make good decisions without good information.

Now, knowledge-sharing empowers the Forum to better target and identify funding opportunities for programs that are filling needs in the community, like Full Bellies. 

PRCFF helped Amy apply for a grant that will allow Full Bellies to purchase a more accessible, refrigerated van and make modifications to their loading dock – making it possible for Amy to make even more deliveries to vulnerable people across Prescott-Russell.  

“Full Bellies fit right into a bit of a gap in needs in our community. We do have a lot of smaller communities and often not only is food an issue, but transportation is an issue. Food banks are very important in the community they serve, but for one thing, not every community has a food bank. In terms of transportation, getting to and from the food bank can be an issue”

Louis hopes that the PRCFF will be able to support more programs like Full Bellies in the future, as needs will only rise with inflation rates.  

“It’s an ongoing issue, foodbanks are struggling, families are struggling, and I think we’ll see the worst of it soon, unfortunately,” says Béland. In the meantime, the creativity and drive of local residents like Amy ensures people across Prescott-Russell have a full belly, even when times are tough.  

“Getting more food, into more people’s bellies, for much less, is really why my family and all of the volunteers are doing this.”

Help fight food insecurity across East Ontario. 

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Jazz found a job he loves at Krackers Katering, a social enterprise that employs people with disabilities and mental health challenges, empowering them to overcome barriers and achieve their goals.

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