Not treats, just food to eat (Winnipeg edition)

October 1, 2011

Local students are collecting canned goods for food banks, as part of initiatives like Halloween for Hunger, a program that uses Halloween’s existing food supply and delivery system for a good cause. Photo source: Zing Images, Getty Images.

Call us nerds (not the candy kind), but Halloween makes us think of food security.

And we don’t mean ensuring treats were safely wrapped and free of razor blades before indulging.

We’re thinking of reliable and equitable access to nutritious food sources. After all, it’s only the richest nations that can afford to give out millions of mini-Snickers bars and Tootsie Rolls to random children who bang on our doors.

Still, Halloween, even on the home front, hides the scary truth: hundreds of thousands of Canadians go hungry every day.

Last year, more than three million Canadians were considered poor, about one in ten. Of those, more than 600,000 were children. A staggering 867,948 Canadians relied on food banks in March of last year alone—the highest single month on record in the 29-year history of Food Banks Canada, the national umbrella organization that represents Canada’s food bank community.

Don’t get us wrong. Kids are perfectly within their rights to dress up like vampires and sink their plastic fangs into kiddie-sized Kit Kats. But not all Canadian children are so lucky.

And not all trick-or-treating is created equal. Instead of soliciting candy door-to-door, local students are collecting canned goods for food banks, as part of initiatives like Halloween for Hunger, a program that uses Halloween’s existing food supply and delivery system for a good cause. Look past the goblins and you just might see an earnest teen collecting non-perishables on your step.

“My goal is to teach students how one small act of kindness can go a long way. I want them to take pride in helping others,” says Jennifer Cyr, Grade 5 teacher at Walter Whyte School in Grand Marais, Manitoba, and faculty lead for the school’s social justice committee. With Cyr’s help, the committee’s 20 members have rallied the whole school, 126 students from kindergarten to Grade 9, to do a trick-or-treat themed food drive with Halloween for Hunger.

This grassroots campaign has been active across North America and in the United Kingdom for more than ten years. Last year, Halloween for Hunger participants across Canada collected more than 600,000 pounds of food—enough to feed 119 families of four for an entire year. It’s now one of the largest single-day food drives in the country.

At Walter Whyte, it’s more than just one day, as the social justice committee meets once a week to discuss issues like local hunger, a topic that inevitably spirals into talks of world hunger and current events, says Cyr. At this week’s meeting, in addition to Halloween for Hunger prep, the club will brainstorm ways to help the thousands rendered homeless in Turkey after an earthquake hit the country last week.

Students gain a better awareness of poverty, both endemic and post-natural-disaster, both local and international. But reactions to local issues are a bit more intense.

Whyte says her students are “very surprised” to learn that hunger affects so many Canadians, and even people closer to home in the Winnipeg region.

It’s important that students understand the problem, she adds, but it’s also crucial that there is a discussion surrounding potential solutions—like collecting canned goods. And it’s important that students see the fruits of their forfeited candy firsthand. The social justice committee will drop off their canned goods in person, en route to a field trip in Winnipeg.

Walter Whyte students are collecting food for Winnipeg’s Siloam Mission, which provides free programs and services for Winnipeg’s inner-city homeless community. While Canada’s food banks tend to have more visitors between the months of September and October, they also see a drop in donations during the lull between Canadian Thanksgiving and the late December holiday season.

A late October food drive bridges the gap for an increasing number of hungry Canadians. Over the past decade, Food Banks Canada has recorded a 19 percent increase in visits.

Manitoba saw the country’s highest increase in use for its provincial food banks between 2009 and 2010—up 21 percent.

Hunger awareness isn’t meant to take the joy out of Halloween. In fact, we hope that the younger Halloween for Hunger trick-or-treaters will still overdose on sugar, while also collecting some non-perishables to complement their candy.

On the surface, Halloween and hunger seem like strange bedfellows. Rotting teeth versus empty stomachs. But it’s a perfect time for Canadians to think about our food resources while we’re revelling in sugary excess.

Raising hunger awareness on Halloween also takes advantage of the one night a year that it’s socially acceptable to canvass neighbourhoods for free food. Food drives just piggyback on an existing supply opportunity by forfeiting your own excess candy to help someone else get a healthy meal.

This Halloween, if a do-gooding goblin knocks at your door, have some canned goods handy.

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