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"Closing the Hunger Gap" Means New Ways of Thinking

At a Portland conference, nonprofits are learning about organizations like The Stop, the first of what has become a thriving network of community centers in Canada focused on fighting poverty. Credit: Community Food Centres Canada
At a Portland conference, nonprofits are learning about organizations like The Stop, the first of what has become a thriving network of community centers in Canada focused on fighting poverty. Credit: Community Food Centres Canada
September 14, 2015

PORTLAND. Ore. - People who run food banks and soup kitchens across North America are in Portland this week to brainstorm ways to make their efforts more effective.

One premise of the Closing the Hunger Gap conference is that hunger-fighting organizations do more to fight the causes of poverty and homelessness – and the people they serve can help.

Nick Saul is president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. He is considered an expert in this field, for transforming a single Toronto soup kitchen into Community Food Centres Canada, sites that offer healthy food, resource referrals, gardens and cooking classes, a speakers bureau and more. He wrote a book about it, called "The Stop."

"Ostensibly, people come to our centers to access food, but I would say equally important is to access other people - and learn resources exist out there, and make a friend," says Saul. "When you are poor and struggling, you are often alone, and that can have quite significant negative consequences for you."

Saul thinks it is critical that food-related nonprofits help people who use their services have a voice in the policies that affect their lives. He notes Canada has income-inequality problems similar to those in the U.S., and no federal nutrition programs.

Another conference participant is a longtime sociology professor and author who studies food systems, from school cafeterias to federal nutrition programs. Jan Poppendieck, who teaches at Hunter College, City University of New York, says today's food banks have evolved over decades, and it's time to update the model.

"It's clear that for the most part, we're not working ourselves out of the job of handing out food to people who are hungry," she says. "So, I think it's time to expand the vision and commitments of the organizations. How can we move this in the direction of more fundamental change?"

She says some food-related charities are hesitant to be politically involved so as not to alienate donors, but believes those fears are exaggerated.

She adds food banks' most recent innovations, serving healthier foods and partnering with grocery stores, farms and restaurants to waste less food, are encouraging trends.

About 450 people are attending the Closing the Hunger Gap conference. Oregon Food Bank is a co-sponsor.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR