A little plastic card creates a huge boost in self-worth. 

I Can for Kids (iCAN) recently received a humbling note from a parent who accessed our grocery gift card program: “Being able to choose what our family eats takes away the guilt and shame that we feel about needing help.” 

The vulnerability of these words hit us hard. The age-old notion that “beggars can’t be choosers” is deeply flawed and harmful. The food-insecure families who access our program aren’t begging. In fact, most of them are working and struggling to make ends meet. Others are dealing with unexpected financial shocks, such as serious illness, job loss, or death of a breadwinner. 

With your support, iCAN can expand our dignified approach to show respect for the inherent value of the more than 1 in 5 children in Calgary whose families struggle with food insecurity.   

We know that food insecurity is a crisis of too little income, not too little food. Studies in Canada show that less than 15% of food-insecure households access food charity. One of the main reasons is that many people experience intense feelings of shame and stigma when they access food provision programs.   

In 2020, iCAN transitioned to grocery gift cards as a more dignified and barrier-free way of supporting families in need. We prefer to empower parents with the freedom to shop in their own communities alongside friends and neighbours at a location and time that fit their busy schedules. We also want to align our program with evidence on the coping strategies that food-insecure households prefer to implement, such as finding ways to extend their limited income so they can buy enough food on their own. 

During our own research with the University of Calgary, 100% of study participants stated that they much preferred grocery gift cards over free food hampers and our former food program. Our recipients experience no shame or anxiety when they pay with a gift card because none of the staff or patrons in the store know that they needed to access support. Our recipients also appreciate our simple onboarding process which is based on their existing relationships with agency partners and never requires them to fill out complex forms with highly personal information.

Despite the evidence that highlights the need for more dignified responses, iCAN fields questions about how we can trust our recipients to spend the grocery gift cards on healthy food. We have two key responses to address this important concern: 

First, recent research in Canada outlines how carefully food-insecure households manage their limited budgets. In brief: they prioritize the essentials, not the indulgences. Nearly all low-income  households will choose to pay their rent first, even if they have no food. It’s not surprising that the second most important expense is food. It’s not uncommon that severely food-insecure parents are forced to choose between housing or feeding their children. Several of our study participants informed us that our grocery gift card program enabled their families to eat and avoid eviction. No parent wants to raise their children in homelessness.

Second, the iCAN model targets families with children who are most in need. We collaborate with multiple frontline agencies who forge caring relationships with food-insecure families every day. And we implicitly trust their expertise and integrity. Through direct client interactions, agency staff can continually determine which families most require iCAN’s support to maximize equitable and reliable access. An interview with one of our grocery gift card recipients highlights just how effectively our agency network ensures that our program reaches food-insecure families at the right time.  

To join iCAN’s expanding list of sponsors and champions, check out the different ways you can get involved or donate

To learn more about I Can for Kids and their unique approach to childhood food insecurity, visit www.icanforkids.ca 

About Donald Barker

Donald has worked as a registered dietitian for more than 25 years. He also has a professional background in communications and has long advocated for populations who face adverse, unjust, or systemic barriers that lead to higher rates of poor social, mental, emotional, and physical health outcomes. Donald currently volunteers as an Advisor with iCAN to support our transition towards evidence-based approaches that help improve the well-being of children in Calgary who live in low-income and food-insecure households. You can learn more about Donald at www.synthesist.pro

About I Can for Kids Foundation

I Can for Kids works closely with multiple agency partners to target and distribute grocery gift cards to food-insecure families who are most in need. The iCAN grocery gift card program is a more dignified and inclusive approach to dealing with food insecurity, allowing families to shop where everyone else shops and to choose foods that are appropriate for their health and cultural needs. Last year, iCAN supported more than 34,000 children across Calgary.

For more information and media inquiries, please contact iCAN Executive Director, Bobbi Turko at bobbi@icanforkids.ca.

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