We used to feed hungry kids. Now we empower families to feed themselves.

I Can for Kids (iCAN) embraced the daunting challenge of inspiring a major shift in the way charities and communities understand and tackle childhood food insecurity in Calgary.

In April 2020, we initiated a bold change to our small but mighty program. We then joined forces with the University of Calgary (U of C) to investigate the impact of our decision. The results opened our eyes to better ways of providing the support food-insecure families truly want and need. 

Our transition leads to a more efficient and effective use of your support for the 1 in 5 children in our city who often go hungry because they live in food-insecure households. Here’s why:

During our first five years of operation, we searched for better ways to support food-insecure kids by reviewing research, joining local coalitions, and evaluating our program. That’s how we learned that eminent researchers in Canada recommend income-based policies and interventions rather than food provision approaches. We quickly realized that food programs would never inspire substantial action to address income as the primary cause of food insecurity. 

For the past 40 years, food charities have focused their efforts on relieving hunger by providing food. However, the real issue is food insecurity, and the primary cause is inadequate income. iCAN began brainstorming transformational ways to help shift longstanding societal beliefs on how to best support food-insecure populations.

Enter the global COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. This event forced the charitable sector to approach old problems in new ways. Due to warehouse closures and food supply chain disruptions, iCAN could no longer assemble and distribute free food packs to hungry kids. Thankfully, governments, donors, and public agencies were suddenly open to innovative and radical solutions. While most food provision programs had to suspend operations, we were able to implement an alternative and evidence-based solution overnight due to our streamlined infrastructure and the support of our solid network of agency partners

We immediately began to target free grocery gift cards to those families who were most in need. The response to this new approach was extremely positive. The O’Brien Institute for Public Health at U of C then chose to collaborate with us to investigate the impact of our new model. When asked to compare their experiences of our two different programs, 100% of the study participants expressed a strong preference for the grocery gift cards. Future blog posts will dive deeper into each of the benefits that our recipients identified. 

These eye-opening results validated our permanent shift to grocery gift cards as the sole vehicle of support for food-insecure children in Calgary. Our program acts as a bridge away from food provision and towards income policy. Most importantly, our approach leads to a more dignified response to support children, households, and populations who face food insecurity in Calgary. A long-time volunteer recently sent us a note to convey approval of our changeover: “As a concerned community member, I have been very impressed by this gift card program. The cards help families not only access food, but also serve as a reminder that they are not forgotten and that they are viewed as valuable members of our community.”  

Our next step is to expand our program until broader poverty reduction strategies take full effect. This requires the ongoing support of current and new third-party fundraisers, individual and corporate donors, and skilled volunteers. To join iCAN’s growing list of champions, check out the ways you can get involved or donate

To learn more about I Can for Kids and our 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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