|CC Image: Franco Folini|
Now I am not generally one to give money to a pan-handler. If I do give something, it’s generally a snack (usually healthy) if I have one on me. This has been met with different responses: scorn, indifference or thankfulness. I have offered a few times to go and buy something to eat or drink but have never been take up on the offer, until today. I regret though, that I may have contributed to, not helped the problem of food insecurity.
Today, I had walked to an appointment along Dalhousie Street in Ottawa (for those of you who know where that is) and was on my way back to work, when I stopped to grab something from my purse and rearrange my things. I was soon confronted by a shabbily dressed young man. Since I was stopped, kneeling over my bag, I was his captive audience. He proceeded to tell me all of his problems, from being kicked out of the shelter down the street because of a fist fight, to not having enough to eat. He also assured me that spending money on drugs was not an issue because he doesn’t use them. I was waiting for him to ask me if I could give him money, but that didn’t seem to surface from the avalanche of words spewing from his mouth. I interjected, “can I buy you something to eat?” He replied with “oh yes, yes, please, I’m so hungry.”
At this point I should maybe provide a little background on food insecurity. The prevailing definition of food security is “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Food security and insecurity are on opposite ends of a continuum. Food insecurity has different stages of severity starting with not being able to buy and eat what one would like. This gets at issues of quality including variety, safety, nutrient content, and the caveat that foods must last and not go to waste. The next stage involves a decrease in quantity which might or might not be accompanied by hunger. Finally, the most severe stage is the complete absence of food intake (going completely without).
Food security is a basic human right, but from the 2007-2008 Canadian Community Health Survey, 7.7% (961,000) of Canadian households were food insecure. And keep in mind this is for people with a fixed address, unlike homeless people and those in shelters, so the number is likely higher. I imagine this figure will only climb as our (Canadian) income gap rises and worldwide economic problems deepen; unless of course, our social policies change, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Remember that a key part of food security covers quality – we should have access to healthy, nutritious food. Being food insecure is related to decreased quality of foods consumed and nutrient inadequacies, which makes intuitive sense.
I regret that although I was providing food in principle, it was not of the nutritious variety. We went to the nearest restaurant, Garlic Corner, and I said to the guy “get what you like, I’ll pay for it.” He hummed and hawed, something about wanting breakfast down the street because “these guys don’t serve it past noon, and they are really, really slow.” Then it was he didn’t eat meat but didn’t want any of the vegetarian options. Either the choices at Garlic Corner were not healthy enough (which is partially true) or he wanted money instead, of which I am guessing the latter. Anyway, I told him that I had no cash, so he settled on a Nanaimo cake thing and a red bull. All crap. I mulled all of this over on the remaining walk back to the office. What have I done here? Propagated the problem? Should have I stipulated what he order, ordered it for him, went to a better restaurant, what?
What do you think? I tried to help out a fellow human in need, but did I really? Even if I had stipulated what he had ordered, it would have been denigrating. The other alternative would have been to ignore him, pack-up my things and continue on as if I had not seen or heard him. While I have ignored street people in the past, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with it, trying now to at least acknowledge them as people when I walk by – a smile, node, or hello. I don’t mind providing snacks here and there but I’d almost rather do nothing if it means that the another red bull or Nanaimo cake gets sold and consumed. At the same time, it's food, pretty good tasting food at that. I would imagine that it's pretty hard to be concerned about nutrition when there are so many other problems to deal with. That is the problem.
Pilgrim A, Barker M, Jackson A, Ntani G, Crozier S, Inskip H, Godfrey K, Cooper C, Robinson S, & SWS Study Group (2011). Does living in a food insecure household impact on the diets and body composition of young children? Findings from the Southampton Women's Survey Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, June 7 : 10.1136/jech.2010.125476
Kirkpatrick SI, & Tarasuk V (2008). Food insecurity is associated with nutrient inadequacies among Canadian adults and adolescents. The Journal of nutrition, 138 (3), 604-12 PMID: 18287374