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About a month ago, a representative from the York Region Food Network spoke to a youth group that I’m involved in coordinating. She spoke about hunger and poverty issues in York Region. The group was asked whether or not they believed that there were people “in need” or “hungry” in our community. Only four out of the 30 individuals present agreed that there were people in need and that the determining cause for hunger in York Region is poverty. When asked why people were poor, the youth could provide only the following response: “Because they don’t work.” However, they could not answer the subsequent question on why those in poverty don’t work.

Could I expect high school students from a moderately affluent community in Southern Ontario to be aware of the social complexities of hunger issues in our region? No, I couldn’t. Did I expect them to jump out of their seats in outrage and initiate their own grassroots hunger awareness campaigns after being informed that 13% of people in York Region lived on low incomes, and that over 54,000 people accessed food from York Region food banks in 2009? Certainly not. The primary goal I was hoping to achieve was to have the youth to gain insight into a humanitarian issue that they didn’t believe affected them.

Locally, it is our marginalized populations that access food banks and live in hunger. It is the newcomers, those who come from dysfunctional families, those living with physical, mental, developmental or learning disabilities, the unemployed or the underemployed. Similarly from the global perspective, it is the marginalized populations, the ones that cannot compete in the international markets, or those who are in a state of conflict—those are the ones who continue to perpetuate in a state of hunger.

It’s easy to conclude that a high school dropout chooses to dropout of school and therefore ends up in his or her own situation. The same conclusion is often made about newcomers to Canada, who chose to move to a foreign country, despite language and culture barriers. It is far more difficult to challenge one’s mind to believe that it may not be a choice. There are a number of complicated factors that contribute to each individual’s circumstance.

Are we obligated to accommodate these marginalized populations? No, I don’t believe it is the obligation that should motivate us to help others. Personally, I feel privileged to be in a position where I believe that I can make a difference. I believe that by providing support, we are opening up our world to a vast potential of development and ingenuity. I have made the choice to take action against poverty, starting with food distribution. When people are well fed, they are happier, healthier, more productive, and are capable of learning more. This is the first step to development.

Heather (left), VAN Hunger Awareness team leader, with Latoya (right), a member of her team. Heather's team hosted a Hunger Awareness event in February 2010.

Taking action doesn’t necessarily need to involve a large-scale fundraising or awareness campaign—it can simply start with spreading the message by word of mouth. For example, when a client of mine—a single parent—told me that money was tight and that she did not know how to properly nourish herself and her young child, I gave her a list of recipes and websites on healthy eating on a budget and a library card to access more nutrition books. The gratitude I got from her the next week gave me a smile I wore the whole day, although the task itself was so simple.

The question directed globally is how to nourish a community of people who rely on select seasonal produce items, have limited access to livestock, who have no access to grocery stores, libraries, or the Internet? It takes one step at a time from dedicated advocates and volunteers. It starts with wanting to help and acknowledging the fact that we can make a difference.

If you are not sure what to do for the Hunger Awareness Day, I say get informed! The 30 youth who participated in the York Region Food Network event are now aware of hunger issues in their community. For them, it was a small step towards creating a better future—that same group has been actively fundraising for a humanitarian cause ever since.

-Heather Pedersen volunteered with YCI in Ghana in the Fall of 2008. She is currently the team leader for the Volunteer Action Network‘s Hunger Awareness team, as well as a member of YCI’s Volunteer Advisory Council. She currently works for the YMCA.

To learn more about Hunger Awareness Day, check out: http://hungerawarenessday.ca

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