No Hunger in YYC: Why food is an afterthought in emergencies

This article is by Calgary Food Bank CEO James McAra. Watch for more from James as he discusses food issues and impacts on our community. You can also follow James and No Hunger in YYC on Twitter.

During WWII, my grandfather was a fireman in Aberdeen, Scotland. Though he tried to enlist, he was asked to stay because the city still needed firefighters to protect civilians at home while everyone else was fighting overseas. He said when bombs dropped over the UK and Scotland, he had to navigate the streets in the dark, finding his destination by sheer muscle memory. He knew his environment, he knew his job. Because of that, he was able to make due in the darkness.

Despite food’s role in helping people back on their feet during and after the 2013 floods, it’s still not a priority for emergency preparedness.

That’s what it felt like here, at the food bank, during the flood and the years after. We know our environment, we know our job: emergency food. But often, we’re left in the dark during our city’s emergencies — and subsequent emergency planning — and all we can do is navigate through the darkness as best we can.

When people plan for an emergency, or during an emergency, we find food is left out. It’s often an unspoken expectation that food will be part of an emergency response (social and otherwise).

In reality, it’s not. It’s an afterthought.

In Canada when an emergency erupts we see shelter, clothing, funds, water, equipment and volunteers arrive. When we see food, it comes as snacks and water for workers or volunteers, but seldom in the necessary volumes or variety to address those impacted by the emergency who must continue eating. It is even truer when the shock of crisis erodes self-care and well-being.

Calgary flood clean-up volunteers stopping for lunch.

Here at the Calgary Food Bank, our vision and our focus is to work together to create a hunger-free community. We were founded as a coordinated response to an emergency of large-scale layoffs in the 1980s, but until more recently have become a food hub for emergency response all around the country — sending food (4.2 million lbs. last year alone) all over Canada during times of crisis.

The Philosophy of Food Project was shared with me by my colleague, Jeremy Tuff. One part specifically made me really read, re-read, think and then re-read again:

Food is vexing. It is not even clear what it is. It belongs simultaneously to the worlds of economics, ecology, and culture. The subject quickly becomes tied up in countless empirical and practical matters that frustrate attempts to think about its essential properties. It is very difficult to disentangle food from its web of production, distribution, and consumption. Or when it is considered in its various use and meaning contexts, it is too often stripped of its unique food qualities and instead seen as, for example, any contextualized object, social good, or part of nature. It is much easier to treat food as a mere case study of applied ethics than to analyze it as something that poses unique philosophical challenges.

Food can be complex but the important part is we are beginning to see:

  • Food policy discussed (sometimes even legislated)
  • Food access rising on the collective radar
  • Food Banks increasingly recognized as the “canary in the coalmine,” giving up-to-date information about impact on community health relative to food and hunger
  • Food slowly becoming a lens through which we plan our communities, no longer an afterthought based on retail space.

The food bank needs to be a part of this collective conversation, whether it’s everyday emergency food distribution to people in need, feeding hundreds of thousands of hungry or displaced people going through disasters like the 2013 Alberta floods, or just being at the table when prepping for future emergencies.

Food is a non-negotiable in life; emergencies are no exception. We are and will do our best to be here for this city in the best way we can and push our way into these conversations, if necessary. Our future depends on it.

How we reacted to the flood:

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