People and programs 02/21/2018

If you were following the news a few weeks ago, you might have seen this headline: Britain appoints minister for loneliness amid growing isolation.

If you read on, you would've learned some pretty scary stats: nine million Britons say they often or always feel lonely. More than 200,000 say that they hadn’t had a conversation with a friend or family member in more than a month. British doctors see one to five patients a day who come in mainly because they’re lonely.

The story of loneliness is unfolding in many countries. And it's affecting our health. Studies show that loneliness increases a person’s likelihood of developing a host of serious health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and dementia. A 2015 meta-analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University found that loneliness and social isolation are as deadly as risk factors like obesity, smoking, and lack of physical activity. Diet-related illnesses already place a huge cost burden on our heath-care system. Add loneliness to the mix and the crisis grows.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg provides some historical context in New York Times piece. In it, he writes that the proportion of lonely people is not much different now than it was 50 or 60 years ago – that we are not, in fact, living through an epidemic of loneliness. What does concern him is the disproportionate negative effect loneliness has on people who are already experiencing marginalization because of income, race, or immigration status. It’s them, he says, that we should focus on helping.

Food can provide a pathway to change. After all, we all need to eat. Producing, preparing and consuming food together has been a cornerstone of community-building across cultures for as long as human history. It’s one of the primary ways we share our history, our values, our culture.

We may not be facing a loneliness epidemic, but we are eating alone more. That may not be a big deal if you’re grabbing a quick lunch on the way back to the office, before picking up your kids and heading off to a playdate. But when you’re spending all your monthly income on rent and transportation, you can’t afford to participate in society in the ways many Canadians take for granted. Susie, a community member from Dartmouth North, sums it up best:

“I can’t explain to you the feeling of defeat when you know you have to eat something that’s going to put you in pain, because there’s nothing else to eat; the loneliness that comes from being alone in an apartment day in and day out because you can’t afford to go anywhere. It’s just a never-ending cycle.”

Susie first came to the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre because she needed help with food. She was invited to sit down at a table of neighbours at the community dinner. She came back the next week. After a few visits, she joined a community kitchens program. Then she started volunteering. “I can never express how much the Community Food Centre has made a major impact on my life, not just physically but mentally as well.”

She’s not alone. In our 2017 participant survey, 95% of people said they feel like they belong to a community at their centre. 87% have made a new friend. 44% are volunteering in programs. A community member from the Dartmouth North community Food Centre told us: “The big thing here is acceptance. Everyone is welcome. I was in a very bad place when I started coming here. It's given me purpose.”

That sense of belonging and connection doesn’t happen on its own. Loneliness isn’t just about being alone, it’s about feeling unused, value-less, unknown. Just being in a room with people doesn’t necessarily make you feel less lonely – in fact, in can have the opposite effect. So Community Food Centres and Good Food Organizations focus on creating ways for people to participate, contribute, provide leadership, and have their voices and perspectives heard. 

At The Alex Community Food Centre in Calgary, contributing can mean anything from just showing up, to volunteering in the garden, to leading a community kitchen session in a new recipe, to joining a social justice club. “This is my second home. I don't have relatives I can rely on. Walking in here, everyone is friendly, welcomes you. Staff and volunteers really committed to treating everyone equal, making everyone welcome. I've never seen another place like it.” 

And it's amazing how quickly the change can happen. The Hamilton Community Food Centre opened its doors last year after a lot of community outreach and consultation. It has already become an important gathering place in its community: “Before I was isolated. Now I come here and have a lot of friends. I get to discuss, talk, and learn with others.”

Our society’s loneliness problem won’t be solved in a lab, or in a minister's office. It's by investing in places and programs that bring communities together, and give people ways to contribute, that we can bring people together. Want to play a role? Make a donation that supports places that bring people together around good food. Volunteer. Or share this story with your friends. There’s lots we can do together.