Family studies grad Katharine Schmidt

How do hunger and poverty exist in a prosperous country like Canada? That’s a question Katharine Schmidt, B.A.Sc. ’87, faces every day as executive director of Food Banks Canada.

“It’s quite alarming,” she says of the number of Canadians who need food assistance each year. Almost 870,000 people sought assistance from a food bank in March 2010, a nine-per-cent increase over the previous year and the highest level of food bank usage on record, according to HungerCount, an annual report published by Food Banks Canada.

Although food banks provide short-term assistance to help people get through tough times, “It’s certainly not the answer to people’s need for safe, quality food when they don’t have enough money to afford it themselves,” says Schmidt.

Those seeking assistance receive a three- to five-day supply of food once a month, up to six times a year. Food banks also provide access to community kitchens and gardens as well as programs that teach people how to prepare nutritious meals and make cost-effective decisions when buying groceries.

Food banks are like financial banks: they encourage people to save for a rainy day, says Schmidt, adding that you or someone you know might need food assistance in the future. “You never know what life has in store for you, your friends, your neighbours or family.”

According to a recent survey by the Canadian Payroll Association, almost 60 per cent of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque. When money is tight, people are often forced to choose between feeding themselves and putting a roof over their heads. Low income can be due to a variety of factors, including health problems or a lack of education, training or experience to obtain a higher-paying job.

In addition to overseeing 10 provincial food bank associations and 450 food banks nationwide, Food Banks Canada also conducts research to develop long-term solutions to hunger and poverty. Their recommendations include improving access to affordable housing and childcare and addressing low income among seniors. Food Banks Canada is tackling big problems that won’t solve themselves, but Schmidt says they can’t do it alone. She says the solutions will require input from all levels of society, including governments, businesses and individuals.

“I really believe it’s going to take all of us. We are a prosperous, well-educated country, and there are solutions if we work together.”

Student-run food drives like Trick or Eat put a smile on her face. More than 1,300 University of Guelph students took part in last year’s Trick or Eat Halloween campaign, which collected more than 19,000 kilograms of food worth approximately $85,000. The costume drive is part of an annual food drive organized by Meal Exchange, a national, student-led organization that tackles hunger and poverty. Guelph students collected the food, but it was the generosity of local citizens who filled the shelves at 19 local organizations, including food banks, neighbourhood groups and shelters.

Schmidt encourages students to volunteer for causes and organizations they believe in. Not only does volunteer experience give students the opportunity to help others, they also develop transferable skills they can use in the workplace. Schmidt’s degree in family studies gave her the skills she uses on a daily basis, including critical thinking, communication skills and an understanding of family dynamics.

“I wouldn’t give up my four years at Guelph for anything,” she says. “I’m fortunate that in this role, I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of Canadians.