A place-based alternative approach to food security: lessons learned from a neighborhood house

A place-based alternative approach to food security: lessons learned from a neighborhood house Abstract The urban poor in many advanced economies have become subject to the problem of food security. So far, the charity food model, such as foodbanks and meal programs, has been the key solution to this problem. This model tends to undermine service users’ aspirations to eat healthy food and their agentic function for change. Using a case study approach, we examine how a place-based community organization, with roots in the settlement house tradition, adopts an alternative approach to food security issues in an impoverished neighborhood. Adopting an activist and a right-to-food philosophy, it has brought together local residents to collectively tackle prevalent hunger and unhealthy food supply problems in the community. The neo-liberal retrenchment of state welfare has resulted in a growing problem of food insecurity among the urban poor in many advanced economies. As defined by the 1996 World Food Summit, ‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006). However, so far most charitable food programs, such as foodbanks and meal programs, have been inadequate at meeting the nutritional needs of their service users. Very often, treated as passive, hungry individuals to be fed, service users of this system have only very limited choices over what and when they eat. Despite its importance in hunger relief, the charitable food system is criticized as a mechanism for managing the poor through food, which disguises the structural problem of poverty. In this paper, using a case study research method, we examine an alternative approach to food security. This alternative approach has been developed by a place-based community organization that embraces the settlement house tradition and upholds a right-to-food philosophy to meet the food and nutrition needs of residents in a low-income community. Food insecurity and charitable solutions Food security is a global issue that does not only challenge economically underdeveloped countries. The domination of neo-liberal economic policy has led to the retrenchment of social welfare in many advanced economies. As a result, food insecurity has become a growing social problem. In urban communities in many wealthy countries, low-income people also struggle with hunger and nutrition deficit (Riches, 2011; Caraher and Cavicchi, 2014). The mechanism that has arisen in these advanced economies, such as Canada, to address issues of food security is largely based on a charitable model initiated and operated by non-profit and, often, religious organizations. The charitable food system has contributed greatly by filling the welfare gaps arisen from the shrinking state welfare programs, but ironically also redistributing the potentially wasted food in the affluent society. As Caraher and Cavicchi (2014) argue, through this system, food, as a public good, is redistributed to alleviate poverty, which in turn contribute to the overall social welfare of the society. However, the charitable food system is not without controversies, To fully review the controversies is beyond the scope of this paper.1 Instead, we limit our examination to the shortcomings of the charitable food system so that the alternative place-based model may offer promising solutions. The limits of the charitable food system Within this charitable food system, foodbanks have uncritically become a key program to tackle food insecurity issues. Foodbanks gather excess food from the market place and from private donations, and then distribute them, largely through volunteer labor, to feed those that are deemed needy. Unique dietary requirements cannot generally be addressed in this model that is simply based on what food happens to be donated. The food provided by foodbanks is not regulated in the same way as food for consumer purchase. It tends to be left up to the foodbanks to sort through donations and remove unusable produce. Foodbanks often give out low quality food that may not be healthy or safe. Additionally, foodbanks must balance their supply against demand. If demand is too high, they scale back their offerings or engage eligibility criteria. This means that the amount and the types of food that is available, dictates what can be offered to the clients that the foodbank serves, rather than what is actually needed. With a history that can be dated back to the Poor Law Era, charitable meal programs run by non-profits and faith-based organizations are another common response to food shortages. In conjunction with social services to meet other basic needs, these programs are largely provided in shelters, supported housing projects, and day programs located in low-income communities. They are particularly placed where there is a significant number of homeless or under-housed people. These programs operate on donations or by applying for grants, and their goal is to feed the maximum number of people, while utilizing the fewest possible resources. This creates a situation in which service users often wait in long lines. Many meal programs are provided by faith-based organizations, which as Scouten et al. (2016) found, are operated by overworked staff and volunteers who have limited food resources to prepare meals and tend to prepare their own favorite food items for clients. Users of meal programs often have little choice over what they eat even though they may aspire to have a healthier diet. As a group of service coordinators in Toronto, Canada, who were interviewed by Tarasuk and Dachner (2009), pointed out, the overarching goal for these programs is immediate hunger relief, and nutrition considerations are secondary (p. 441). For those who use the charitable food system, while having little say in when, what, or with whom they eat, they are also expected not to complain about or reject the food provided (Miewald, Ibanez-Carrasco and Turner, 2010). In other words, food distributed through a charitable food system is not based on users’ needs and rights. Foodbanks and charitable meal programs fail to ensure that all citizens can access an adequate quantity and quality of food to meet their nutritional requirements. Consequently, as dependents of other people’s donations, their equal citizenship and status may, intendedly or unintendedly, be denied (Garthwaite, 2017). Framing food issues as a problem for private charities or fragmented social services to tackle serves to make them invisible as the major social problems that they are. Indeed, as some critics point out, the charitable food system is a neo-liberal mechanism that depoliticizes the structural injustice that causes food security issues (Booth and Whelan, 2014; Williams et al., 2016) and undermines people’s rights to food. According to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in General Comment No. 12, people should have the right-to-food (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, nd). This mandates that the government has a responsibility to ensure that citizens are able to access adequate and appropriate nutrition, and that it should not be treated in isolation from other social and citizenship rights. The deficiencies of the charitable food system prompts the need for an alternative approach to deal with food security (Miewald and McCann, 2014), that respects users’ rights to food, and positions the users as active citizens instead of passive recipients. Employing a case study research method, we examine the right-to-food approach adopted by the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House (DTESNH) in the City of Vancouver, Canada. Our findings indicate that unlike the charity model, DTESNH and its food programs are not there just to meet the food and nutrition needs of local people. They are also a means of community development that connects and mobilizes local residents, as members of a community, to reclaim their control of food programs. Downtown Eastside: a framed troubled neighborhood As an early ‘skid row’ of the City of Vancouver (the City) (Huey and Kemple, 2007), the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighborhood in Vancouver has been viewed as a problem area by both public media (Liu and Blomley, 2013) and the academic literature (Linden et al., 2012). According to the Downtown Eastside Local Area Profile 2013 (City of Vancouver, 2013), there are many differences between the DTES population and others living in the City, in terms of both demography and lived experience. For example, 53 percent of the DTES population is low income, whereas the average for the City is 21 percent (City of Vancouver, 2013). This area also has a high population of seniors and males, but few children reside in the neighborhood. Situated on the unceded Coast Salish territory, it has a very high percentage of the population that is identified as Aboriginal or First Nations. This neighborhood, currently and historically, has also hosted strong Chinese, Japanese, and African Canadian communities. DTES residents tend to experience more challenges than those living in the rest of the City. Addictions, physical health, mental health, social isolation, and homelessness are all major problems in this community. As home to the highest concentration of homeless people, DTES has the largest number of single room occupancy (SRO) housing units in the City which are considered as ‘the last stop before homelessness.’ SROs are single, very small rooms with no kitchen or bathroom and are often unsanitary and unsafe. They are the only housing that individuals on social assistance can afford. People generally live alone in these small rooms. Indeed, 70 percent of DTES households are occupied by a single resident, compared with 39 percent in the rest of the City. Economically, having a high concentration of welfare recipients residing in this area, DTES also has a strong informal economy with residents salvaging from trash bins, selling items in informal ‘kiosks’ on the sidewalk, and bartering with one another to obtain needed items or services. A large part of the informal economy is the illicit drug market and sex trade, because of which the public media tend to portray this neighborhood ‘as a place of rampant crime and its residents as criminals’ (Liu and Blomley, 2013, p. 125). DTES has also been portrayed by the media through a medical pathological lens (Liu and Blomley, 2013). The neighborhood and its residents have been heavily researched by different health disciplines (Linden et al., 2012). The urban myth portrays DTES as an area full of drug addicts, and dying people on the sidewalk, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic is in every corner (Liu and Blomley, 2013). Socially, the community is described as, and considered to be, ‘a place of needs and pathology’ with residents ‘possessing minimal or no agency for positive change’ (Liu and Blomley, 2013, p. 130). Law enforcement has consistently tended to socially construct the DTES as a community that has been rejected by mainstream society because of its moral weakness. This area is necessary as a place to confine dangerous individuals in order to keep the rest of the City safe (Sommers, 2001). Finally, as the area with the highest concentration of social services in the City, DTES has been seen as a ‘community of clients’ by non-profit organizations and the governments that fund these organizations. These organizations focus on programs and policies aimed at individuals, that ‘makes the existing situation better for clients of particular services, [but] it disempowers residents and citizens, making them more controllable, less powerful, and less visible in their own community.’ (Roe, 2010, p. 97). As Miewald and McCann (2014) observe, as the poorest area in the City, DTES is paradoxically an area filled with free and low-cost food providers of both profit and non-profit sectors. Community gardens and urban farms are noticeable. Corner stores selling ice-cream and soda are easy to find. Groceries and low-cost ready-made food are available in the adjacent Chinatown. With the highest concentration of social services, there is an abundance of charitable food programs in DTES serving the local homeless and low-income housed residents. However, as Miewald and McCann (2014) notice, in keeping with what has already been described in the literature, the charitable food programs in this area are also doubtfully nutritious, and users shuffle between different charitable providers and wait in long lines for food that can only fill them up. Individuals living in the DTES face many challenges and barriers, however, it is a community that has a history of social activism, as observed by Hasson and Ley (1994). From the campaign to get fire sprinklers installed in SROs in order to stop the ongoing fatalities in hotel fires, to the development of harm reduction initiatives that have now been adopted across Canada and saved countless lives, the DTES has been at the forefront of many struggles to address social injustices. Indeed, while the DTES is a community that is often pathologized by outsiders, residents of the area view it in a different light (Huey and Kemple, 2007; Pedersen and Swanson, 2009). DTES residents enjoy being close to the services that they need, they feel accepted for who they are, there is a strong sense of community, and the numerous human rights violations that occur in the area serve to band people together on a common quest for social justice. As reported by Huey and Kemple (2007), a vast majority of the 46 residents whom they interviewed, tended to use the word, community, ‘a social and physical space they inhabit’ (p. 2314), to describe DTES. It is this collective sense of community that led to the establishment of the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House (DTESNH) in 2004. Downtown Eastside neighborhood house: a case study As described in its history posted on the website, DTESNH inherits the settlement house tradition (DTESNH, n.d.-c), one of the earliest place-based community development models to meet local needs by nurturing, mobilizing, and organizing the capacities of local residents (Yan, 2004; Yan, Lauer and Riaño-Alcalá, 2016). In brief, the idea of the ‘place-based’ approach can be understood as a bottom-up approach that focuses on both social infrastructure and networks of democratic participation (Amin, 2005). A healthy and unified place-based community has long been believed to be an important foundation for a civil society, with the important functions of production, distribution, consumption, socialization, social control, mutual support, and social participation (Warren, 1963). Thus, a place-based community development approach is critical in mobilizing concerted efforts to address challenges confronting local communities (Shugart and Townsend, 2010); it is also a mechanism for alternative community organizing seeking to confront these challenges (Fisher and Shragge, 2000). There are fourteen neighborhood houses (NHs) in the City, the majority of which were established by local residents in an effort to serve the emerging needs of their communities (Sandercock and Attili, 2009). A snapshot of the literature, largely American-based, on settlement and NHs indicates that historically, NHs have always played a dual role of service-providing and community-building in urban communities. Meeting the residents’ needs is a central function of NHs that are key members in local communities’ service networks. All NHs are multiservice, making them more dynamic as well as instruments for change (Poole and Colby, 2002). As a local community service hub that draws people together, NHs are sensitive to local needs, employing a membership-based service approach that positions service users not as passive clients but as active participants (Yan, Lauer and Sin, 2009). Obviously, today’s NHs differ from the early day settlement houses in many ways. One major difference is that the settler tradition is no longer in practice. Instead, they have become locally governed community organizations and rely more on local leaders and talents. As stated in a recent study of NHs in Vancouver including DTESNH, they have been successful in nurturing and incorporating local leaders in their infrastructure (Yan et al., 2016). Many NHs have food programs. Indeed, the settlement house tradition has long emphasized food security, not only as a hunger relief service, but also as a community-building measure. In her book, Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams (1999), perhaps the most well-known pioneer of the settlement house movement, vividly explained how Hull House started the public kitchen that was later converted into a coffeehouse to meet the nutritional needs of local families. However, as she states, ‘Better food was doubtless needed, but more attractive and safer places for social gatherings were also needed.’ (p. 88). In other words, through having food in a safe place, residents can come together, not only to enjoy the nutritious food, but also to connect with others, a primary component of community building (Yan and Lauer, 2008). Each NH is uniquely characterized by its own history and local context. Unique to DTESNH, is its strong mandate for food security based on the right-to-food philosophy that drew us to conduct this case study. Methodologically, this is a single-case case study which was informed by the case study research method developed by Yin (2014). Yin (2014) suggests that at least six sources of evidence can be used in case study research. In this case, we employed two textual sources of evidence, which include: (i) documentation such as current information posted on the DTESNH’s website and (ii) archival records, previous board meeting minutes, annual reports, and research reports. The third source of evidence was ‘interview’. As a triangulation process, we interviewed six key informants, including two board members, two staff, and two former executive directors (EDs). Half of them were also former service users of DTESNH. As one of the co-authors was a staff of DTESNH, his informal ‘experiential’ observations of the day-to-day operation was valuable reference to validate data collected from other sources. Regarding the interviews, we tried to verify facts and to understand their experiences and opinions of how DTESNH actualized its right-to-food philosophy. Except one, all interviews were conducted at the house. Interviews were audio-taped which were transcribed and analyzed with other textual materials using NVivo, a computer assisted qualitative data analysis program. The major analytical strategy is an inductive ground up approach (Yin, 2014). A thematic analysis technique was used. All materials were coded and categorized. Five interrelated themes were identified and reported. The ethical protocol for this study was approved by the first author’s affiliated institution. Formation: struggle for place-based autonomy In 2003, two community foundations, the Central City Mission Foundation and Alexandra Foundation for Neighborhood Houses had identified a gap in service in the area and invited the Association of Neighborhood Houses of Greater Vancouver (ANH, later renamed as the Association of Neighborhood Houses of British Columbia) to conduct a needs study to determine if a NH would be a desired development in the area. ANH is the umbrella organization of seven NHs and two outdoor camps in Greater Vancouver. A consultant was hired and 130 people were interviewed, including 70 residents. As indicated in the untitled report (the Report) of this needs study, there was a consensus among different stakeholders including local residents, EDs of existing NHs, representatives from local NGOs, and government departments that a NH could fill the gaps in service for children, seniors, and families but two major issues were raised (Unknown, 2004). The first one was the funding politics. DTES was home for over 260 community organizations that altogether spent CAD 360 million in 2013 (Culbert and McMartin, 2015). Any new community organization would be seen as a competitor for the already scarce resources. The second one was the autonomy of local residents in the development process. Interestingly as indicated in the Report, this was the concern raised by many EDs of existing NHs who felt strongly that the success of a NH lies in the commitment and participation of local residents. They recommended that ANH should support residents to establish a NH instead of directly starting a new one. As quoted in the Report, starting a NH by ANH would be ‘doomed to failure, but if it came from residents – no one could stop it’ (p. 31). Finally, findings of the needs study were shared in a community meeting as a means of gathering momentum. Indeed, the needs study itself sowed the seeds among the residents who participated in the consultation. In 2004, the DTESNH was initiated as a satellite program and a member of ANH under the direction of a steering committee of 20 DTES community members. The committee later became a community board. The new establishment had an annual budget of CAD 23,000 and one part-time staff member. In 2009 the Community Board of DTESNH decided to pursue its status as an independent non-profit society rather than remaining under ANH. As stated in an undated document issued by the Board, maintaining autonomy was cited as the ultimate rationale for this decision: ‘To be effective, efficient, and to have impact in our community thus requires a high level of autonomy. This includes autonomy to make responsive and creative changes to programming, autonomy over finances in order to effectively work in partnership with other donors, supporters, and organizations, and autonomy over staffing to ensure that the long-term support and trust of the DTESNH community and its residents is nurtured and maintained.’ (Italics are authors). Since then, DTESNH has officially become a locally governed place-based community organization and its desire for autonomy was later reflected in its unique philosophy and programming. A place where everyone can come Most community organizations serving the DTES neighborhood require service users to accept certain religious leanings or to meet some type of criteria, such as a demographic or a health-related requirement. As a secular organization that is open to all members of the community and intends to become a place everyone in the community can be accepted (Husock, 1993; Yan, 2004), DTESNH has manifested the primary nature of a NH. Judging from its vision and mission statements, DTES is no different from many other NHs. Its vision is ‘To provide a dignified welcoming space that creates and supports an improved quality of life for the DTES community.’ and its mission is ‘To provide opportunities for residents to meaningfully engage with and contribute to their community in an equitable atmosphere of sharing and learning.’ (DTESNH, n.d.-a). The ideas of a welcoming space and of meaningful engagement resonate Addam’s vision of Hull House as a safe place for social gathering. As one board member noted, ‘I think the NH is one of those physical gathering places where people know they’re welcome, regardless of gender, politics, race, you know, ability, disability, and so we have no criteria. We’re secular, so really I think that notion of the NH as welcoming, people really translate it as a little, kind of, microcosm as a community, because you don’t need to fit in a certain box to feel welcome and enjoy what we do there, or partake in anything.’ Other interviewees also discussed the importance of having a place where people could come together and freely discuss their ideas, in contrast with other food service providers that insist people leave the premises once their meal is completed so that more individuals can be served. One staff member who started out as an NH service user shares his own experience, ‘community for me is something we do lack in this, ah DTES. It seems like we do more fighting here in the DTES than we do community work. And that’s one of the reasons I think that the NH was such a good thing because we were able to build a core of people that were, ah… They would come at the same time every day or whatever and they got to know each other, and they sit and talk for a couple hours at a time sometimes. Some of the people, so it was ah, to me that is a community where you can actually go and sit down and have a meal.’ Food as a communicative instrument Indeed, previous studies on NHs have also found that using multiple programming to bring people together in a safe space with an equitable atmosphere is a key community-building function of NHs (Yan, Lauer and Sin, 2009). However, DTESNH’s programing has an explicit food focus. This is how DTESNH introduces its programing: Our programing is community inspired and varied, a sampling of which has included a Chinese Elders Community Kitchen, A Traditional Aboriginal Community Kitchen, Leadership Development for Grand/Parents, a Children’s Community Kitchen, Nutritional Outreach Activities (Mobile Smoothie Project and Banana Beat), The Healing Circle, Father’s for Thought, Table Talks project, a Family Drop-in: Families, Farming, and Food, Our Community drop-in serving up nutritious food, art, and music, and The production of a Right-to-food Zine (DTESNH, n.d.-a). Obviously, as a community service organization in a low-income neighborhood troubled by food insecurity problems, DTESNH’s focus on food was a natural choice right from its inception. As stated in their food philosophy, ‘We know food to be a communicative instrument and hence use its offering as an instrument of community building.’ (DTESNH, n.d.-b, italics are authors). The time after the meal is a space where individuals can interact with one another and the NH. In this space, there is a chance for individuals to connect with one another and for the NH to begin to explore what they would like to see in their neighborhood. This connection function is particularly important to DTES community members who tend to be socially isolated and materially deprived, so feeding people and letting them connect with each other is a much-needed service in the community. The community members that originally founded the NH understood this function. Furthermore, being able to connect with and influence an organization that serves them allows people to feel ownership and empowers them through providing a sense of control in their lives. In the very beginning, challenged by a very limited budget and space and not being known in the community, DTESNH developed two unique nutritional outreach programs that have since become its signature food programs. Both programs have been run by volunteers through the Peer Worker Program. The staff and volunteers, who are also local residents, recognized that the welfare check day is a period when low-income residents will be most nutritionally compromised. On the welfare cheque day, they run the ‘Banana Beat’ program. NH staff and volunteers go out into the community and hand out bananas to community members who are waiting in line to pick up their cheques. The ‘Mobile Smoothie Project’ happens the day before cheque day. For this program, NH staff and volunteers set up fruit smoothie making stations in seven service providers throughout the DTES and provide smoothies to community members. Strategically picking these seven providers as partners that have an explicit social justice focus, they can support these providers through their Right-to-food philosophy and stay connected to the social justice movement in the area. As the staff explained, these programs not only serve the nutrition needs of low-income residents but also have multiple community development functions. They are communicative instruments to keep the NH connected to the community by engaging people in their day-to-day activities. These outings into the community allow the NH to promote itself and also find out what is really going on in the neighborhood regarding food security issues. It also helps to build trust by showing that the NH understands the day-to-day lives of community members. For example, the choice of bananas and smoothies especially demonstrates their understanding of people’s needs. Both can be eaten by those with dental issues such as many suffer from, and they do not need to be washed – few people have access to facilities to do this. Right-to-food and activism In the interviews, we were repeatedly reminded that the DTESNH engages in advocacy work based on the Right-to-food philosophy and has a broader goal of systemic reform, rather than simply providing for people’s nutritional needs. The Right-to-food philosophy has been the guiding principle that signifies DTESNH’s major difference from other charitable food programs. Based on this philosophy they articulate their food guidelines as follows: Food allergens, diabetes, Hep C, HIV/AIDS, heart, and stroke health are considered in our menu planning. Recipe ingredients are listed. We use only non-toxic cleaning products and purchase Fair Trade coffees and teas. We avoid refined sugars, processed foods, gluten, non-stick cookware, silicone, aluminum foil/pots/pans, plastics for prepping/cooking/serving/storing foods, Eurocentric menus and soup, as it’s the food relentlessly offered to those living in material poverty. We take responsibility for educating existing and potential food donors about which foodstuffs are the ones on which our neighbors thrive (DTESNH, n.d.-b). As a long time board member told us, in contrast to the traditional food security concept, ‘So, our ‘right-to-food,’ um, maybe the term has been used by others, but we wanted to definitely use that phrase, ‘right,’ as a human right, as opposed to food security.’ The Right-to-food Philosophy goes beyond guiding their choice of nutritious food in food programing. To achieve the Right-to-food in DTES, it also requires DTESNH to engage in activism that can transform the community. As stated in their Operating Philosophy: ‘We mirror the entirety of our community: in its beauty and its harshness, its poetry, and its frustration. We are activist, reformist and non-violent, critical of the poverty mentality and its handmaiden the charity model. We challenge the clichés visited upon the materially poor. We work from an honor system which assumes the inherent dignity and deservedness of all.’ (DTESNH, n.d.-d) Internally, they make sure that service users are treated with dignity. As an interviewee, a board member who first engaged with the DTESNH as a volunteer for the ‘Community Volunteer Program,’ mentioned that often in other food service organizations servers will speak down to service users or use a condescending tone with them, ‘like they’re speaking to a child.’ He remembered that this issue was raised at a meeting and DTESNH staff and volunteers agreed that avoiding this type of behavior would be a priority for the organization. Indeed, users of DTESNH are not passive clients. They are trusted with their agency for change. As the same interviewee recalled, ‘basically [DTESNH] encourages people to come in with their ideas and organize, and if you had a good idea, XXX [name of the ED at the time] would be the first to say ‘run with it, do what you can, here are the resources, I am providing you with all the, you know, the space, I’m providing you with the office equipment, I’m providing you with all the tools.’ Um, so really give people the opportunity to take whatever issue they wanted to, and drum up support to get the group going.’ The fact that DTESNH provides a space where people can connect with each other illustrates the potential for community organizing and activism. As the president of the Board observed, ‘groups of people coming together and talking about things, what they would like to see changed. That’s activism to me, as one voice talks with another voice, that makes it a little louder, right? And that is activism.’ DTESNH’s activism also targets local organizations. A concrete example that was mentioned on a number of occasions by the interviewees was the tension that exists between the DTESNH and the local foodbank. They receive food donations from the foodbank, but at the same time are quite critical of the types of food provided and the rationale that underpins the existence of this institution. A board member noted, ‘through our Right-to-food initiative along with the foodbank and the limited resources, how can we work together to voice that this was originally a temporary measure that now has become a permanent one and an even more vital one in the last four years?’ They also try to influence the manner in which other food service providers operate. When discussing how the DTESNH interacts with service providers that share a similar philosophy on service provision, a former ED remembered: ‘[Name of the organization] has come to us and said, how do we, how do we do more of what you guys are doing, with the food piece? We need to change our food provision. We’re lousy in that area.’ As he recalled, some organizations rethought their food philosophies because of interactions with the NH. To a certain extent, he thought that the DTESNH was a ‘thought leader’ regarding Right-to-food issues and influenced the City’s policy on access to food. Indeed, some scholars praised DTESNH as an alternative discourse to the charitable food system (Miewald and McCann, 2014). Challenges to stay true to its philosophy Today, DTESNH has grown to a size of 7.5 full-time equivalent staff members with a budget of CAD 400,000. However, throughout the years, DTESNH has experienced many challenges to stay true to its Right-to-food philosophy and activism. Lack of funding and resources is a major challenge to DTESNH, particularly as it is located in a highly competitive service environment. As a former ED shared with us, ‘Yep, I would say the biggest was financially. How it was to grow, a NH, in a very challenging financial climate. In a climate that also is saturated in a discourse around, a critical discourse around the number of and the amount of resources going into the DTES made it very hard to grow an organization like that.’ Meanwhile, like many community organizations, DTESNH is mainly funded by public money. In 2016, out of its total budget, close to 60 percent was from different levels of governments. Inevitably it has struggled to balance its activism with the conservative attitudes of some funders. A former staff member noted, ‘I think the fact that the neighborhood house is dabbling in these different worlds of activism and social programming, it does make it a little bit harder to appeal to the different organizations and funding sources that might provide stability.’ As a former ED pointed out, they always need to resist being coopted by the funder: ‘I think when you’re an organization as unique as the DTESNH, one thing to be especially mindful of, any organization actually, is to have your mission, or your work co-opted by funders, or you know, a funder will say “hm, it’s within our brand identity to appear to be supporting access to food,” and that might be charitable, so, you know, they might do things like send out volunteers to hand out stale bread and salty soup.’ Other than working with the funder, DTESNH is also part of a larger service network for the most deprived neighborhood in the City. Within this network, organizations collaborate and compete with each other. Together they form a specific ‘foodscape’ in which food, survival, and politics intersect and create, sustain, and transform the ‘social, material, institutional, and classed contexts in which low-income people access and interact around food’ (Miewald and McCann, 2014, p. 540). This foodscape also affects how DTESNH achieve the Right-to-food philosophy. As one interviewee, an NH staff member with a community organizing background, noted, ‘you know how can we … not looking too complacent from the view of other activist organizations in the Downtown Eastside, but not looking too radical from the perspective of the funders, and from the perspective of the more, for lack of a better word, … the more conservative elements in the Downtown Eastside that we do work with, not alienating them.’ A fine balance of activism, service provision, and partnership is an ongoing challenge to DTESNH. Internally, DTESNH is challenged by how to truly involve the local residents. As a former staff member who focused on community development reported their efforts in nurturing leadership among users, ‘the work I did do, the choice I did make was emphasizing leadership development of our membership rather than, um…and within…doing that an eye toward like trying to, from there, build the capacity to like…. Oh yeah, these are folks to get involved and feel empowered, are more likely to take charge of the organization, feel responsible for the organization, feel confident in decisions they make on behalf of the organization.’ Indeed, three of the interviewees in this case study had the experience of starting out at the NH as service users and then going on to occupy a leadership position within the organization as staff or board members. However, they were the minority. Currently only two out of the nine board members are current or former service users. This is a significant drop when compared to the composition of the original community board. Many users were either not interested in or felt unable to take up an active role. For example, as a staff member observed: ‘So you would see community members on the board for a while, and you could see it, it wasn’t a space and the conversation wasn’t a space that they felt particularly confident in. And then after a while you would see them come to less and less meetings.’ This interviewee also pointed out that it was difficult to create an atmosphere in which community members could contribute beyond a ‘tokenistic’ manner. He also warned that sometime expecting too much from community members who may have been experiencing challenging life situations could also be a problem. Conclusion Limited by its scope and the people whom we interviewed, this case study has no intention of providing an evaluative perspective of what DTESNH has done. Instead, it offers an example of how a place-based community development approach can address the issue of food security. We echo Miewald and McCann (2014) in their comment that DTESNH provides ‘an alternative discourse to the institutionalized “beggars can’t be choosers” paradigm by “[o]ffering people a choice of the foods they ingest”’ (p. 550), a discourse which Jane Addams and many other early settlement house pioneers promoted. There are a few lessons that we can learn from this case study. DTESNH, as a modern form of settlement house, demonstrates that by embracing the place-based tradition of the settlement house movement and using food as a communicative instrument, they can bring people together to pursue food justice in a safe physical and social space in the community. As an alternative approach, DTESNH upholds a Right-to-food philosophy that recognizes the aspirations and rights of people to make choices about healthy and nutritious food. While recognizing and respecting the relief function of the charity food model, we argue that by learning from DTESNH’s place-based approach to food security, we can consider a community development model that recognizes and empowers the agentic capacity of local residents who are trusted to have the ability to make wise choices about a healthy diet and to challenge the unjust foodscape. However, from an evidence-informed practice perspective, based on a single-case study, it is untenable for us to unquestionably advocate the DTESNH’s place-based approach as a replacement of the charity food system. To claim its effectiveness in resolving the food security issue, we need to rigorously compare the outcomes of this and other models. Meanwhile, despite its long history, neighborhood house, as a place-based community development model, has received scant attention in the literature of community development and of social work. Therefore, more studies are also needed to understand how this model works and its effectiveness. Footnotes 1 For a detailed review of the debate, please refer to the Special Issue of the British Food Journal edited by Caraher & Cavicchi, 2014 or Riches & Silvasi (2014). References Addams, J. ( 1999) Twenty Years at Hull House , Bedford/St. Martin’s, Boston, MA. Amin, A. ( 2005) Local community on trial, Economy and Society , 34 ( 4), 612– 633. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Booth, S. and Whelan, J. ( 2014) Hungry for change: the food banking industry in Australia, British Food Journal , 116 ( 9), 1392– 1404. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Caraher, M. and Cavicchi, A. ( 2014) Old crises on new plates or old plates for a new crises? Food banks and food insecurity, British Food Journal , 116 ( 9). doi.org/10.1108/BFJ-08-2014-0285. City of Vancouver ( 2013) Downtown Eastside (DTES): Local Area Profile 2013 , City of Vancouver Community Services and City of Vancouver Planning and Development Services, Vancouver. Retrieved from http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/profile-dtes-local-area-2013.pdf. Culbert, L. and McMartin, P. ( 2015, 1.15.2015) Downtown Eastside: 260 agencies, housing sites crown Downtown Eastside (with video and map), Vancouver Sun, accessed at: http://www.vancouversun.com/health/Downtown+Eastside+agencies+housing+sites+crowd+Downtown+Eastside+with+video/9983274/story.html DTESNH. (n.d.-a) About the DTES NH, Retrieved 11/08/2017, accessed at: http://dtesnhouse.ca/?page_id=37 DTESNH. (n.d.-b) Our Food Philosophy, Retrieved 11/08/2017, accessed at: http://dtesnhouse.ca/?page_id=15 DTESNH. (n.d.-c) Our History, Retrieved 11/08/2017, accessed at: http://dtesnhouse.ca/?page_id=13 DTESNH. (n.d.-d) Our Operating Philosophy, Retrieved 11/08/2017, accessed at: http://dtesnhouse.ca/?page_id=18 Fisher, R. and Shragge, E. ( 2000) Challenging community organizing, Journal of Community Practice , 8 ( 3), 1– 19. doi:10.1300/J125v08n03_01. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ( 2006) Policy Brief. Garthwaite, K. ( 2017) ‘I feel I’m giving something back to society’: constructing the ‘active citizen’ and responsibilising foodbank use, Social Policy and Society , 16 ( 2), 283– 292. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hasson, S. and Ley, D. ( 1994) Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State , University of Toronto Press, ON, Toronto. Huey, L. and Kemple, T. ( 2007) ‘Let the streets take care of themselves’: making sociological and common sense of ‘skid row’, Urban Studies , 44 ( 12), 2305– 2319. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Husock, H. 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( 2014) Foodscapes and the geographies of poverty: sustenance, strategy, and politics in an urban neighbourhood, Antipode , 46 ( 2), 537– 556. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Pedersen, W. and Swanson, J. ( 2009) Our Place & Our Words: Mapping Downtown Eastside Community Assets and Challenges. BC: Vancouver: Carnegie Community Action Project. Poole, D. L. and Colby, I. C. ( 2002) Do public neighborhood centers have the capacity to be instruments of change in human services? Social Work , 47 ( 2), 142– 152. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  Riches, G. ( 2011) Thinking and acting outside the charitable food box: hunger and the right to food in rich societies, Development in Practice , 21 ( 4-5), 769– 775. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Riches, G. and Silvasti, T., eds ( 2014) First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food , Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Roe, G. W. ( 2010) Fixed in place: Vancouver’s downtown eastside and the community of clients, BC Studies , 164 ( Winter, 2009/2010), 75– 101, 143. Sandercock, L. and Attili, G. ( 2009) Where Strangers Become Neighbours: Integating Immigrants in Vancouver, Canada , Springer, New York, NY. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Scouten, S., Lucia, V. C., Wunderlick, T., et al.   ( 2016) An assessment of needs of church coordinators providing meals to a homeless shelter, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved , 27 ( 3), 1211– 1219. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  Shugart, I. and Townsend, T. ( 2010) Bringing ‘place’ in—exploring the role of the federal government, Horizons (Sustainable Places) , 10, 4– 6. Sommers, J. D. ( 2001) The place of the poor: poverty, space and the politics of representation in Downtown Vancouver, 1950–1997, Ph.D., Simon Fraser University, BC: Vancouver. Tarasuk, V. and Dachner, N. ( 2009) The proliferation of charitable meal programs in Toronto, Canadian Public Policy , 35 ( 4), 433– 450. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. (nd). Special Rapporteur on the right to food Retrieved 08/08/2017, 2017, accessed at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Food/Pages/FoodIndex.aspx Association of Neighbourhood Houses of Greater Vancouver. ( 2004) Untitled. BC: Vancouver: The Association of Neigbhourhood Houses of Greater Vancouver. Warren, R. ( 1963) The community in America , 3rd edn, Rand McNally College Publishnig Co, Chicago, IL. Williams, A., Cloke, P., May, J., et al.   ( 2016) Contested space: the contradictory political dynamics of food banking in the UK, Environment and Planning A , 48 ( 11), 2291– 2316. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Yan, M. C. ( 2004) Bridging the fragmented community: revitalizing settlement houses in the global era, Journal of Community Practice , 12 ( 1/2), 51– 69. 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For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Community Development Journal Oxford University Press

A place-based alternative approach to food security: lessons learned from a neighborhood house

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Abstract

Abstract The urban poor in many advanced economies have become subject to the problem of food security. So far, the charity food model, such as foodbanks and meal programs, has been the key solution to this problem. This model tends to undermine service users’ aspirations to eat healthy food and their agentic function for change. Using a case study approach, we examine how a place-based community organization, with roots in the settlement house tradition, adopts an alternative approach to food security issues in an impoverished neighborhood. Adopting an activist and a right-to-food philosophy, it has brought together local residents to collectively tackle prevalent hunger and unhealthy food supply problems in the community. The neo-liberal retrenchment of state welfare has resulted in a growing problem of food insecurity among the urban poor in many advanced economies. As defined by the 1996 World Food Summit, ‘Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006). However, so far most charitable food programs, such as foodbanks and meal programs, have been inadequate at meeting the nutritional needs of their service users. Very often, treated as passive, hungry individuals to be fed, service users of this system have only very limited choices over what and when they eat. Despite its importance in hunger relief, the charitable food system is criticized as a mechanism for managing the poor through food, which disguises the structural problem of poverty. In this paper, using a case study research method, we examine an alternative approach to food security. This alternative approach has been developed by a place-based community organization that embraces the settlement house tradition and upholds a right-to-food philosophy to meet the food and nutrition needs of residents in a low-income community. Food insecurity and charitable solutions Food security is a global issue that does not only challenge economically underdeveloped countries. The domination of neo-liberal economic policy has led to the retrenchment of social welfare in many advanced economies. As a result, food insecurity has become a growing social problem. In urban communities in many wealthy countries, low-income people also struggle with hunger and nutrition deficit (Riches, 2011; Caraher and Cavicchi, 2014). The mechanism that has arisen in these advanced economies, such as Canada, to address issues of food security is largely based on a charitable model initiated and operated by non-profit and, often, religious organizations. The charitable food system has contributed greatly by filling the welfare gaps arisen from the shrinking state welfare programs, but ironically also redistributing the potentially wasted food in the affluent society. As Caraher and Cavicchi (2014) argue, through this system, food, as a public good, is redistributed to alleviate poverty, which in turn contribute to the overall social welfare of the society. However, the charitable food system is not without controversies, To fully review the controversies is beyond the scope of this paper.1 Instead, we limit our examination to the shortcomings of the charitable food system so that the alternative place-based model may offer promising solutions. The limits of the charitable food system Within this charitable food system, foodbanks have uncritically become a key program to tackle food insecurity issues. Foodbanks gather excess food from the market place and from private donations, and then distribute them, largely through volunteer labor, to feed those that are deemed needy. Unique dietary requirements cannot generally be addressed in this model that is simply based on what food happens to be donated. The food provided by foodbanks is not regulated in the same way as food for consumer purchase. It tends to be left up to the foodbanks to sort through donations and remove unusable produce. Foodbanks often give out low quality food that may not be healthy or safe. Additionally, foodbanks must balance their supply against demand. If demand is too high, they scale back their offerings or engage eligibility criteria. This means that the amount and the types of food that is available, dictates what can be offered to the clients that the foodbank serves, rather than what is actually needed. With a history that can be dated back to the Poor Law Era, charitable meal programs run by non-profits and faith-based organizations are another common response to food shortages. In conjunction with social services to meet other basic needs, these programs are largely provided in shelters, supported housing projects, and day programs located in low-income communities. They are particularly placed where there is a significant number of homeless or under-housed people. These programs operate on donations or by applying for grants, and their goal is to feed the maximum number of people, while utilizing the fewest possible resources. This creates a situation in which service users often wait in long lines. Many meal programs are provided by faith-based organizations, which as Scouten et al. (2016) found, are operated by overworked staff and volunteers who have limited food resources to prepare meals and tend to prepare their own favorite food items for clients. Users of meal programs often have little choice over what they eat even though they may aspire to have a healthier diet. As a group of service coordinators in Toronto, Canada, who were interviewed by Tarasuk and Dachner (2009), pointed out, the overarching goal for these programs is immediate hunger relief, and nutrition considerations are secondary (p. 441). For those who use the charitable food system, while having little say in when, what, or with whom they eat, they are also expected not to complain about or reject the food provided (Miewald, Ibanez-Carrasco and Turner, 2010). In other words, food distributed through a charitable food system is not based on users’ needs and rights. Foodbanks and charitable meal programs fail to ensure that all citizens can access an adequate quantity and quality of food to meet their nutritional requirements. Consequently, as dependents of other people’s donations, their equal citizenship and status may, intendedly or unintendedly, be denied (Garthwaite, 2017). Framing food issues as a problem for private charities or fragmented social services to tackle serves to make them invisible as the major social problems that they are. Indeed, as some critics point out, the charitable food system is a neo-liberal mechanism that depoliticizes the structural injustice that causes food security issues (Booth and Whelan, 2014; Williams et al., 2016) and undermines people’s rights to food. According to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in General Comment No. 12, people should have the right-to-food (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, nd). This mandates that the government has a responsibility to ensure that citizens are able to access adequate and appropriate nutrition, and that it should not be treated in isolation from other social and citizenship rights. The deficiencies of the charitable food system prompts the need for an alternative approach to deal with food security (Miewald and McCann, 2014), that respects users’ rights to food, and positions the users as active citizens instead of passive recipients. Employing a case study research method, we examine the right-to-food approach adopted by the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House (DTESNH) in the City of Vancouver, Canada. Our findings indicate that unlike the charity model, DTESNH and its food programs are not there just to meet the food and nutrition needs of local people. They are also a means of community development that connects and mobilizes local residents, as members of a community, to reclaim their control of food programs. Downtown Eastside: a framed troubled neighborhood As an early ‘skid row’ of the City of Vancouver (the City) (Huey and Kemple, 2007), the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighborhood in Vancouver has been viewed as a problem area by both public media (Liu and Blomley, 2013) and the academic literature (Linden et al., 2012). According to the Downtown Eastside Local Area Profile 2013 (City of Vancouver, 2013), there are many differences between the DTES population and others living in the City, in terms of both demography and lived experience. For example, 53 percent of the DTES population is low income, whereas the average for the City is 21 percent (City of Vancouver, 2013). This area also has a high population of seniors and males, but few children reside in the neighborhood. Situated on the unceded Coast Salish territory, it has a very high percentage of the population that is identified as Aboriginal or First Nations. This neighborhood, currently and historically, has also hosted strong Chinese, Japanese, and African Canadian communities. DTES residents tend to experience more challenges than those living in the rest of the City. Addictions, physical health, mental health, social isolation, and homelessness are all major problems in this community. As home to the highest concentration of homeless people, DTES has the largest number of single room occupancy (SRO) housing units in the City which are considered as ‘the last stop before homelessness.’ SROs are single, very small rooms with no kitchen or bathroom and are often unsanitary and unsafe. They are the only housing that individuals on social assistance can afford. People generally live alone in these small rooms. Indeed, 70 percent of DTES households are occupied by a single resident, compared with 39 percent in the rest of the City. Economically, having a high concentration of welfare recipients residing in this area, DTES also has a strong informal economy with residents salvaging from trash bins, selling items in informal ‘kiosks’ on the sidewalk, and bartering with one another to obtain needed items or services. A large part of the informal economy is the illicit drug market and sex trade, because of which the public media tend to portray this neighborhood ‘as a place of rampant crime and its residents as criminals’ (Liu and Blomley, 2013, p. 125). DTES has also been portrayed by the media through a medical pathological lens (Liu and Blomley, 2013). The neighborhood and its residents have been heavily researched by different health disciplines (Linden et al., 2012). The urban myth portrays DTES as an area full of drug addicts, and dying people on the sidewalk, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic is in every corner (Liu and Blomley, 2013). Socially, the community is described as, and considered to be, ‘a place of needs and pathology’ with residents ‘possessing minimal or no agency for positive change’ (Liu and Blomley, 2013, p. 130). Law enforcement has consistently tended to socially construct the DTES as a community that has been rejected by mainstream society because of its moral weakness. This area is necessary as a place to confine dangerous individuals in order to keep the rest of the City safe (Sommers, 2001). Finally, as the area with the highest concentration of social services in the City, DTES has been seen as a ‘community of clients’ by non-profit organizations and the governments that fund these organizations. These organizations focus on programs and policies aimed at individuals, that ‘makes the existing situation better for clients of particular services, [but] it disempowers residents and citizens, making them more controllable, less powerful, and less visible in their own community.’ (Roe, 2010, p. 97). As Miewald and McCann (2014) observe, as the poorest area in the City, DTES is paradoxically an area filled with free and low-cost food providers of both profit and non-profit sectors. Community gardens and urban farms are noticeable. Corner stores selling ice-cream and soda are easy to find. Groceries and low-cost ready-made food are available in the adjacent Chinatown. With the highest concentration of social services, there is an abundance of charitable food programs in DTES serving the local homeless and low-income housed residents. However, as Miewald and McCann (2014) notice, in keeping with what has already been described in the literature, the charitable food programs in this area are also doubtfully nutritious, and users shuffle between different charitable providers and wait in long lines for food that can only fill them up. Individuals living in the DTES face many challenges and barriers, however, it is a community that has a history of social activism, as observed by Hasson and Ley (1994). From the campaign to get fire sprinklers installed in SROs in order to stop the ongoing fatalities in hotel fires, to the development of harm reduction initiatives that have now been adopted across Canada and saved countless lives, the DTES has been at the forefront of many struggles to address social injustices. Indeed, while the DTES is a community that is often pathologized by outsiders, residents of the area view it in a different light (Huey and Kemple, 2007; Pedersen and Swanson, 2009). DTES residents enjoy being close to the services that they need, they feel accepted for who they are, there is a strong sense of community, and the numerous human rights violations that occur in the area serve to band people together on a common quest for social justice. As reported by Huey and Kemple (2007), a vast majority of the 46 residents whom they interviewed, tended to use the word, community, ‘a social and physical space they inhabit’ (p. 2314), to describe DTES. It is this collective sense of community that led to the establishment of the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood House (DTESNH) in 2004. Downtown Eastside neighborhood house: a case study As described in its history posted on the website, DTESNH inherits the settlement house tradition (DTESNH, n.d.-c), one of the earliest place-based community development models to meet local needs by nurturing, mobilizing, and organizing the capacities of local residents (Yan, 2004; Yan, Lauer and Riaño-Alcalá, 2016). In brief, the idea of the ‘place-based’ approach can be understood as a bottom-up approach that focuses on both social infrastructure and networks of democratic participation (Amin, 2005). A healthy and unified place-based community has long been believed to be an important foundation for a civil society, with the important functions of production, distribution, consumption, socialization, social control, mutual support, and social participation (Warren, 1963). Thus, a place-based community development approach is critical in mobilizing concerted efforts to address challenges confronting local communities (Shugart and Townsend, 2010); it is also a mechanism for alternative community organizing seeking to confront these challenges (Fisher and Shragge, 2000). There are fourteen neighborhood houses (NHs) in the City, the majority of which were established by local residents in an effort to serve the emerging needs of their communities (Sandercock and Attili, 2009). A snapshot of the literature, largely American-based, on settlement and NHs indicates that historically, NHs have always played a dual role of service-providing and community-building in urban communities. Meeting the residents’ needs is a central function of NHs that are key members in local communities’ service networks. All NHs are multiservice, making them more dynamic as well as instruments for change (Poole and Colby, 2002). As a local community service hub that draws people together, NHs are sensitive to local needs, employing a membership-based service approach that positions service users not as passive clients but as active participants (Yan, Lauer and Sin, 2009). Obviously, today’s NHs differ from the early day settlement houses in many ways. One major difference is that the settler tradition is no longer in practice. Instead, they have become locally governed community organizations and rely more on local leaders and talents. As stated in a recent study of NHs in Vancouver including DTESNH, they have been successful in nurturing and incorporating local leaders in their infrastructure (Yan et al., 2016). Many NHs have food programs. Indeed, the settlement house tradition has long emphasized food security, not only as a hunger relief service, but also as a community-building measure. In her book, Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams (1999), perhaps the most well-known pioneer of the settlement house movement, vividly explained how Hull House started the public kitchen that was later converted into a coffeehouse to meet the nutritional needs of local families. However, as she states, ‘Better food was doubtless needed, but more attractive and safer places for social gatherings were also needed.’ (p. 88). In other words, through having food in a safe place, residents can come together, not only to enjoy the nutritious food, but also to connect with others, a primary component of community building (Yan and Lauer, 2008). Each NH is uniquely characterized by its own history and local context. Unique to DTESNH, is its strong mandate for food security based on the right-to-food philosophy that drew us to conduct this case study. Methodologically, this is a single-case case study which was informed by the case study research method developed by Yin (2014). Yin (2014) suggests that at least six sources of evidence can be used in case study research. In this case, we employed two textual sources of evidence, which include: (i) documentation such as current information posted on the DTESNH’s website and (ii) archival records, previous board meeting minutes, annual reports, and research reports. The third source of evidence was ‘interview’. As a triangulation process, we interviewed six key informants, including two board members, two staff, and two former executive directors (EDs). Half of them were also former service users of DTESNH. As one of the co-authors was a staff of DTESNH, his informal ‘experiential’ observations of the day-to-day operation was valuable reference to validate data collected from other sources. Regarding the interviews, we tried to verify facts and to understand their experiences and opinions of how DTESNH actualized its right-to-food philosophy. Except one, all interviews were conducted at the house. Interviews were audio-taped which were transcribed and analyzed with other textual materials using NVivo, a computer assisted qualitative data analysis program. The major analytical strategy is an inductive ground up approach (Yin, 2014). A thematic analysis technique was used. All materials were coded and categorized. Five interrelated themes were identified and reported. The ethical protocol for this study was approved by the first author’s affiliated institution. Formation: struggle for place-based autonomy In 2003, two community foundations, the Central City Mission Foundation and Alexandra Foundation for Neighborhood Houses had identified a gap in service in the area and invited the Association of Neighborhood Houses of Greater Vancouver (ANH, later renamed as the Association of Neighborhood Houses of British Columbia) to conduct a needs study to determine if a NH would be a desired development in the area. ANH is the umbrella organization of seven NHs and two outdoor camps in Greater Vancouver. A consultant was hired and 130 people were interviewed, including 70 residents. As indicated in the untitled report (the Report) of this needs study, there was a consensus among different stakeholders including local residents, EDs of existing NHs, representatives from local NGOs, and government departments that a NH could fill the gaps in service for children, seniors, and families but two major issues were raised (Unknown, 2004). The first one was the funding politics. DTES was home for over 260 community organizations that altogether spent CAD 360 million in 2013 (Culbert and McMartin, 2015). Any new community organization would be seen as a competitor for the already scarce resources. The second one was the autonomy of local residents in the development process. Interestingly as indicated in the Report, this was the concern raised by many EDs of existing NHs who felt strongly that the success of a NH lies in the commitment and participation of local residents. They recommended that ANH should support residents to establish a NH instead of directly starting a new one. As quoted in the Report, starting a NH by ANH would be ‘doomed to failure, but if it came from residents – no one could stop it’ (p. 31). Finally, findings of the needs study were shared in a community meeting as a means of gathering momentum. Indeed, the needs study itself sowed the seeds among the residents who participated in the consultation. In 2004, the DTESNH was initiated as a satellite program and a member of ANH under the direction of a steering committee of 20 DTES community members. The committee later became a community board. The new establishment had an annual budget of CAD 23,000 and one part-time staff member. In 2009 the Community Board of DTESNH decided to pursue its status as an independent non-profit society rather than remaining under ANH. As stated in an undated document issued by the Board, maintaining autonomy was cited as the ultimate rationale for this decision: ‘To be effective, efficient, and to have impact in our community thus requires a high level of autonomy. This includes autonomy to make responsive and creative changes to programming, autonomy over finances in order to effectively work in partnership with other donors, supporters, and organizations, and autonomy over staffing to ensure that the long-term support and trust of the DTESNH community and its residents is nurtured and maintained.’ (Italics are authors). Since then, DTESNH has officially become a locally governed place-based community organization and its desire for autonomy was later reflected in its unique philosophy and programming. A place where everyone can come Most community organizations serving the DTES neighborhood require service users to accept certain religious leanings or to meet some type of criteria, such as a demographic or a health-related requirement. As a secular organization that is open to all members of the community and intends to become a place everyone in the community can be accepted (Husock, 1993; Yan, 2004), DTESNH has manifested the primary nature of a NH. Judging from its vision and mission statements, DTES is no different from many other NHs. Its vision is ‘To provide a dignified welcoming space that creates and supports an improved quality of life for the DTES community.’ and its mission is ‘To provide opportunities for residents to meaningfully engage with and contribute to their community in an equitable atmosphere of sharing and learning.’ (DTESNH, n.d.-a). The ideas of a welcoming space and of meaningful engagement resonate Addam’s vision of Hull House as a safe place for social gathering. As one board member noted, ‘I think the NH is one of those physical gathering places where people know they’re welcome, regardless of gender, politics, race, you know, ability, disability, and so we have no criteria. We’re secular, so really I think that notion of the NH as welcoming, people really translate it as a little, kind of, microcosm as a community, because you don’t need to fit in a certain box to feel welcome and enjoy what we do there, or partake in anything.’ Other interviewees also discussed the importance of having a place where people could come together and freely discuss their ideas, in contrast with other food service providers that insist people leave the premises once their meal is completed so that more individuals can be served. One staff member who started out as an NH service user shares his own experience, ‘community for me is something we do lack in this, ah DTES. It seems like we do more fighting here in the DTES than we do community work. And that’s one of the reasons I think that the NH was such a good thing because we were able to build a core of people that were, ah… They would come at the same time every day or whatever and they got to know each other, and they sit and talk for a couple hours at a time sometimes. Some of the people, so it was ah, to me that is a community where you can actually go and sit down and have a meal.’ Food as a communicative instrument Indeed, previous studies on NHs have also found that using multiple programming to bring people together in a safe space with an equitable atmosphere is a key community-building function of NHs (Yan, Lauer and Sin, 2009). However, DTESNH’s programing has an explicit food focus. This is how DTESNH introduces its programing: Our programing is community inspired and varied, a sampling of which has included a Chinese Elders Community Kitchen, A Traditional Aboriginal Community Kitchen, Leadership Development for Grand/Parents, a Children’s Community Kitchen, Nutritional Outreach Activities (Mobile Smoothie Project and Banana Beat), The Healing Circle, Father’s for Thought, Table Talks project, a Family Drop-in: Families, Farming, and Food, Our Community drop-in serving up nutritious food, art, and music, and The production of a Right-to-food Zine (DTESNH, n.d.-a). Obviously, as a community service organization in a low-income neighborhood troubled by food insecurity problems, DTESNH’s focus on food was a natural choice right from its inception. As stated in their food philosophy, ‘We know food to be a communicative instrument and hence use its offering as an instrument of community building.’ (DTESNH, n.d.-b, italics are authors). The time after the meal is a space where individuals can interact with one another and the NH. In this space, there is a chance for individuals to connect with one another and for the NH to begin to explore what they would like to see in their neighborhood. This connection function is particularly important to DTES community members who tend to be socially isolated and materially deprived, so feeding people and letting them connect with each other is a much-needed service in the community. The community members that originally founded the NH understood this function. Furthermore, being able to connect with and influence an organization that serves them allows people to feel ownership and empowers them through providing a sense of control in their lives. In the very beginning, challenged by a very limited budget and space and not being known in the community, DTESNH developed two unique nutritional outreach programs that have since become its signature food programs. Both programs have been run by volunteers through the Peer Worker Program. The staff and volunteers, who are also local residents, recognized that the welfare check day is a period when low-income residents will be most nutritionally compromised. On the welfare cheque day, they run the ‘Banana Beat’ program. NH staff and volunteers go out into the community and hand out bananas to community members who are waiting in line to pick up their cheques. The ‘Mobile Smoothie Project’ happens the day before cheque day. For this program, NH staff and volunteers set up fruit smoothie making stations in seven service providers throughout the DTES and provide smoothies to community members. Strategically picking these seven providers as partners that have an explicit social justice focus, they can support these providers through their Right-to-food philosophy and stay connected to the social justice movement in the area. As the staff explained, these programs not only serve the nutrition needs of low-income residents but also have multiple community development functions. They are communicative instruments to keep the NH connected to the community by engaging people in their day-to-day activities. These outings into the community allow the NH to promote itself and also find out what is really going on in the neighborhood regarding food security issues. It also helps to build trust by showing that the NH understands the day-to-day lives of community members. For example, the choice of bananas and smoothies especially demonstrates their understanding of people’s needs. Both can be eaten by those with dental issues such as many suffer from, and they do not need to be washed – few people have access to facilities to do this. Right-to-food and activism In the interviews, we were repeatedly reminded that the DTESNH engages in advocacy work based on the Right-to-food philosophy and has a broader goal of systemic reform, rather than simply providing for people’s nutritional needs. The Right-to-food philosophy has been the guiding principle that signifies DTESNH’s major difference from other charitable food programs. Based on this philosophy they articulate their food guidelines as follows: Food allergens, diabetes, Hep C, HIV/AIDS, heart, and stroke health are considered in our menu planning. Recipe ingredients are listed. We use only non-toxic cleaning products and purchase Fair Trade coffees and teas. We avoid refined sugars, processed foods, gluten, non-stick cookware, silicone, aluminum foil/pots/pans, plastics for prepping/cooking/serving/storing foods, Eurocentric menus and soup, as it’s the food relentlessly offered to those living in material poverty. We take responsibility for educating existing and potential food donors about which foodstuffs are the ones on which our neighbors thrive (DTESNH, n.d.-b). As a long time board member told us, in contrast to the traditional food security concept, ‘So, our ‘right-to-food,’ um, maybe the term has been used by others, but we wanted to definitely use that phrase, ‘right,’ as a human right, as opposed to food security.’ The Right-to-food Philosophy goes beyond guiding their choice of nutritious food in food programing. To achieve the Right-to-food in DTES, it also requires DTESNH to engage in activism that can transform the community. As stated in their Operating Philosophy: ‘We mirror the entirety of our community: in its beauty and its harshness, its poetry, and its frustration. We are activist, reformist and non-violent, critical of the poverty mentality and its handmaiden the charity model. We challenge the clichés visited upon the materially poor. We work from an honor system which assumes the inherent dignity and deservedness of all.’ (DTESNH, n.d.-d) Internally, they make sure that service users are treated with dignity. As an interviewee, a board member who first engaged with the DTESNH as a volunteer for the ‘Community Volunteer Program,’ mentioned that often in other food service organizations servers will speak down to service users or use a condescending tone with them, ‘like they’re speaking to a child.’ He remembered that this issue was raised at a meeting and DTESNH staff and volunteers agreed that avoiding this type of behavior would be a priority for the organization. Indeed, users of DTESNH are not passive clients. They are trusted with their agency for change. As the same interviewee recalled, ‘basically [DTESNH] encourages people to come in with their ideas and organize, and if you had a good idea, XXX [name of the ED at the time] would be the first to say ‘run with it, do what you can, here are the resources, I am providing you with all the, you know, the space, I’m providing you with the office equipment, I’m providing you with all the tools.’ Um, so really give people the opportunity to take whatever issue they wanted to, and drum up support to get the group going.’ The fact that DTESNH provides a space where people can connect with each other illustrates the potential for community organizing and activism. As the president of the Board observed, ‘groups of people coming together and talking about things, what they would like to see changed. That’s activism to me, as one voice talks with another voice, that makes it a little louder, right? And that is activism.’ DTESNH’s activism also targets local organizations. A concrete example that was mentioned on a number of occasions by the interviewees was the tension that exists between the DTESNH and the local foodbank. They receive food donations from the foodbank, but at the same time are quite critical of the types of food provided and the rationale that underpins the existence of this institution. A board member noted, ‘through our Right-to-food initiative along with the foodbank and the limited resources, how can we work together to voice that this was originally a temporary measure that now has become a permanent one and an even more vital one in the last four years?’ They also try to influence the manner in which other food service providers operate. When discussing how the DTESNH interacts with service providers that share a similar philosophy on service provision, a former ED remembered: ‘[Name of the organization] has come to us and said, how do we, how do we do more of what you guys are doing, with the food piece? We need to change our food provision. We’re lousy in that area.’ As he recalled, some organizations rethought their food philosophies because of interactions with the NH. To a certain extent, he thought that the DTESNH was a ‘thought leader’ regarding Right-to-food issues and influenced the City’s policy on access to food. Indeed, some scholars praised DTESNH as an alternative discourse to the charitable food system (Miewald and McCann, 2014). Challenges to stay true to its philosophy Today, DTESNH has grown to a size of 7.5 full-time equivalent staff members with a budget of CAD 400,000. However, throughout the years, DTESNH has experienced many challenges to stay true to its Right-to-food philosophy and activism. Lack of funding and resources is a major challenge to DTESNH, particularly as it is located in a highly competitive service environment. As a former ED shared with us, ‘Yep, I would say the biggest was financially. How it was to grow, a NH, in a very challenging financial climate. In a climate that also is saturated in a discourse around, a critical discourse around the number of and the amount of resources going into the DTES made it very hard to grow an organization like that.’ Meanwhile, like many community organizations, DTESNH is mainly funded by public money. In 2016, out of its total budget, close to 60 percent was from different levels of governments. Inevitably it has struggled to balance its activism with the conservative attitudes of some funders. A former staff member noted, ‘I think the fact that the neighborhood house is dabbling in these different worlds of activism and social programming, it does make it a little bit harder to appeal to the different organizations and funding sources that might provide stability.’ As a former ED pointed out, they always need to resist being coopted by the funder: ‘I think when you’re an organization as unique as the DTESNH, one thing to be especially mindful of, any organization actually, is to have your mission, or your work co-opted by funders, or you know, a funder will say “hm, it’s within our brand identity to appear to be supporting access to food,” and that might be charitable, so, you know, they might do things like send out volunteers to hand out stale bread and salty soup.’ Other than working with the funder, DTESNH is also part of a larger service network for the most deprived neighborhood in the City. Within this network, organizations collaborate and compete with each other. Together they form a specific ‘foodscape’ in which food, survival, and politics intersect and create, sustain, and transform the ‘social, material, institutional, and classed contexts in which low-income people access and interact around food’ (Miewald and McCann, 2014, p. 540). This foodscape also affects how DTESNH achieve the Right-to-food philosophy. As one interviewee, an NH staff member with a community organizing background, noted, ‘you know how can we … not looking too complacent from the view of other activist organizations in the Downtown Eastside, but not looking too radical from the perspective of the funders, and from the perspective of the more, for lack of a better word, … the more conservative elements in the Downtown Eastside that we do work with, not alienating them.’ A fine balance of activism, service provision, and partnership is an ongoing challenge to DTESNH. Internally, DTESNH is challenged by how to truly involve the local residents. As a former staff member who focused on community development reported their efforts in nurturing leadership among users, ‘the work I did do, the choice I did make was emphasizing leadership development of our membership rather than, um…and within…doing that an eye toward like trying to, from there, build the capacity to like…. Oh yeah, these are folks to get involved and feel empowered, are more likely to take charge of the organization, feel responsible for the organization, feel confident in decisions they make on behalf of the organization.’ Indeed, three of the interviewees in this case study had the experience of starting out at the NH as service users and then going on to occupy a leadership position within the organization as staff or board members. However, they were the minority. Currently only two out of the nine board members are current or former service users. This is a significant drop when compared to the composition of the original community board. Many users were either not interested in or felt unable to take up an active role. For example, as a staff member observed: ‘So you would see community members on the board for a while, and you could see it, it wasn’t a space and the conversation wasn’t a space that they felt particularly confident in. And then after a while you would see them come to less and less meetings.’ This interviewee also pointed out that it was difficult to create an atmosphere in which community members could contribute beyond a ‘tokenistic’ manner. He also warned that sometime expecting too much from community members who may have been experiencing challenging life situations could also be a problem. Conclusion Limited by its scope and the people whom we interviewed, this case study has no intention of providing an evaluative perspective of what DTESNH has done. Instead, it offers an example of how a place-based community development approach can address the issue of food security. We echo Miewald and McCann (2014) in their comment that DTESNH provides ‘an alternative discourse to the institutionalized “beggars can’t be choosers” paradigm by “[o]ffering people a choice of the foods they ingest”’ (p. 550), a discourse which Jane Addams and many other early settlement house pioneers promoted. There are a few lessons that we can learn from this case study. DTESNH, as a modern form of settlement house, demonstrates that by embracing the place-based tradition of the settlement house movement and using food as a communicative instrument, they can bring people together to pursue food justice in a safe physical and social space in the community. As an alternative approach, DTESNH upholds a Right-to-food philosophy that recognizes the aspirations and rights of people to make choices about healthy and nutritious food. While recognizing and respecting the relief function of the charity food model, we argue that by learning from DTESNH’s place-based approach to food security, we can consider a community development model that recognizes and empowers the agentic capacity of local residents who are trusted to have the ability to make wise choices about a healthy diet and to challenge the unjust foodscape. However, from an evidence-informed practice perspective, based on a single-case study, it is untenable for us to unquestionably advocate the DTESNH’s place-based approach as a replacement of the charity food system. To claim its effectiveness in resolving the food security issue, we need to rigorously compare the outcomes of this and other models. Meanwhile, despite its long history, neighborhood house, as a place-based community development model, has received scant attention in the literature of community development and of social work. 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For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Community Development JournalOxford University Press

Published: Mar 15, 2018

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