Justin Eisinga | Reporter
When most people think of neighbourhoods on the Hamilton Mountain, they don’t necessarily associate them with increasing levels of poverty and food bank use. Those are associations most commonly made with the lower city, in neighbourhoods like Beasley or Barton Village. This common misconception, that poverty is a ‘downtown problem,’ is one that Neighbour 2 Neighbour knows all too well.
It’s something Doug Farraway, Director of Development for the social service agency, is passionate about dispelling. “ [In the past] the mountain was the destination. The mission was to get to the mountain. Open spaces, bigger lots, better air. That’s changed, but the perception lingers,” says Farraway. “The per capita poverty rate on Hamilton Mountain is 16%; the rate for the rest of the city is 18%. They’re virtually the same!”
Each September, Redeemer students collect bags of food throughout the neighbourhood surrounding campus as a part of LAUNCH activities. This initiative began as a way for first year students to reach out to the community. The food that is collected is delivered right to the doors of Neighbour 2 Neighbour, replenishing the shelves during a season that most don’t associate with higher levels of food bank use. According to Farraway, the 8,600 pounds of food that were collected by Redeemer students this year was an incredible gift.
“Poverty doesn’t take a vacation,” says Farraway. “In between [the major holidays] the demand doesn’t go away.” The major holidays Farraway is making reference to are Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, which are the most popular times for people to get rid of surplus cans of soup and boxes of Kraft Dinner. September is especially important as families send their children back to school and are in need of food to prepare lunches and snacks. The reality is that Neighbour 2 Neighbour’s community food programs are a central component to the work they do in preventing poverty in Hamilton Mountain neighbourhoods.
Founded in 1984, Neighbour 2 Neighbour was birthed out of a need for food services in Upper Hamilton. Originally housed in a storefront, the demand for services provided by the centre eventually necessitated a move to the current larger location in 1994. Executive Director Denise Arkell was brought on board to help expand and guide the centre to best serve the Hamilton Mountain community. Ever since, Neighbour 2 Neighbour has seen tremendous growth; the centre now boasts 11 equivalent full-time staff, and many new programs have developed over the years.
Although Neighbour 2 Neighbour offers a variety of services to those in need, including family services and educational support, a large portion of the centre’s energy goes towards their Community Food Access Programs. “It’s all about bringing people together surrounding food,” Arkell stated.
However, Arkell does not shy away from making it known that agencies like Neighbour 2 Neighbour shouldn’t really exist. “Food banks are a short-term stop. They are not fixing anything until we find a way of really dealing with the preventative part. Unfortunately there’s no cure for that we’re going to be able to come up with.”
Arkell believes policy changes that implement better wages are key to addressing poverty and issues around food security. “Let’s not beat around the bush here, the issue of poverty is income,” says Arkell. “Until incomes are changed, agencies like Neighbour 2 Neighbour will be around.”
At the end of the day, Arkell has been tasked with leading an organization that is on the forefront of poverty prevention in the City of Hamilton. Finding innovative ways to address these problems is something she is good at, and the development of Neighbour 2 Neighbour over the years is evidence of that.
Denise and Doug want what’s best for the individuals and families they serve each and every day. They also want the surrounding community to join in, especially Redeemer students. In February, Neighbour 2 Neighbour is looking for student participation in Coldest Night of the Year, a walk-a-thon that raised significant funds when it took place for the first time earlier this year. Both directors would also love to see students engage on a whole other level: spending a night sleeping outside as a part of their annual Sleep Out for Hunger event. This event doubles as a fundraising opportunity and an educational experience.
Ultimately, however, what Arkell and Farraway would love to see are students engaging in their community by giving of their time. There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer and serve Neighbour 2 Neighbour and the people they serve. Food is always streaming into the centre that needs to be sorted, there are kids that need to be tutored after school and the community gardens could always use some care. To foster a habit of giving back, not just with our money but also with our time, is something that should never be delayed. Contrary to what our culture tells us, time is a gift far more valuable than money could every purchase.