For many students, the biggest daily dilemma is deciding what food to order for lunch. With a variety of meal-time options available in university campuses it is harder to educate students on the lack of food options available to the general public.

But for one week, a group of McMaster students will be eating and surviving in the same way as thousands of Hamiltonians, scraping by on the meager amount of food provided by a food bank.

From Oct. 12-19, five students from each faculty will be participating in the “Do the Math” challenge hosted by the McMaster Poverty Initiative (MPI). MPI’s main focus is to link the McMaster community with poverty issues and promote long-term advocacy.

The Do the Math Challenge seeks to raise student awareness about the issues of hunger and food security in Hamilton. Do the Math requires each student to eat only the contents of a single food bank bag for an entire week, attend a tour of a local food bank, and complete a daily reflection blog on the challenge.

According to Hamilton Food Share, an average of 18,600 individuals each month rely on food from their local food bank in order to sustain their dietary needs. While food security and hunger are core community issues, they often remain concealed from high-income groups and students who are unlikely to personally experience or know of those who may experience chronic hunger issues.

Melia Sufi

The student participants are also required to choose one way of publicizing the issue of low social assistance rates. This can be done through acts such as writing a letter to an MPP or volunteering in a community agency.

Jeff Wingard, MPI Coordinator and organizer for the Do the Math challenge, shared his thoughts on what the event hopes to achieve.

“One of our main goals is to show people how inadequate the food supply really is and bring awareness to social assistance traits,” he said. Welfare rates keep up with the cost of living. Everybody should be given the right to go to the grocery store and afford to live.”

Wingard also discussed how difficult it is to mimic the effects of poverty. However the Do the Math challenge is the most realistic and hands-on way for students to sink their teeth into issues surrounding food security.

He recognized that McMaster students who participated in the challenge in previous years enjoyed it as a whole, demonstrated a greater respect towards those who utilize food banks, and that they each gained a new perspective on social assistance in Ontario.

While food banks and food security may seem removed from the average student’s thoughts, Do the Math strives to counter notions of widespread prosperity and an abundance of food in Hamilton.

The event is part of the province-wide Do the Math Campaign which seeks to mobilize Ontarians to protest the gaps in the current social assistance system. Figures such as activist Naomi Klein, Toronto Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David McKeown and singer Damian Abraham have become involved in the movement.

Even as students have been breaching the barrier of the campus “bubble” in the past few years, many community social issues, both good and bad, remain under the average student’s radar.

The Vital Signs Report, released on Oct. 12 by the Hamilton Community Foundation, sought to shed light on community strengths and challenges through measuring the quality of life in Hamilton across 12 issue areas.

The report created three levels of concern through which community members could evaluate community issues. The Vital Signs Advisory Committee and several members of Hamilton Roundtable compiled the report for Poverty Reduction. Internet and telephone surveys randomly sampled various households across the city.

Across the board, survey responses noted that there was satisfaction with the community’s approach to addressing issues in “arts and culture,” “getting around (transportation)” and “the environment”.

The community was urged to take immediate action towards addressing the “gap between the rich and the poor” and “work-related issues.”

The most staggering and prominent finding in the report indicates the continued increase in number of people working full-time yet still living below the poverty line in Hamilton. The most recent data available, from 2006, shows that 6.7 per cent of Hamilton’s population is in this category. This average is a marked increase from both the Ontario average (5.5 per cent) and the Canadian average (5.8 per cent).

The gap between the rich and the poor, a major focal point for the Occupy movement, has persisted in Hamilton, mirroring larger national trends. In 2009, the poorest 20 per cent of Hamiltonians had 5 per cent of the total income, while the richest 20 per cent accounted for 41 per cent of the total income.

The report takes into account all the neighbourhoods across Hamilton, including the Westdale-Ainsley Wood area.

McMaster students were not specifically identified in the report. However, community engagement has been at the forefront of campus affairs. Community was a major part of McMaster president Patrick Deane’s visioning letter “Forward With Integrity.”

Siobhan Stewart, MSU President, emphasized the variety of ways in which students choose to engage in community affairs, especially through various MSU services and clubs.

“People find their own channel and have their own unique story about what community engagement means to them.”

Stewart also noted that there is increased mindfulness towards including both community and student opinion on Hamilton’s social issues.

Several McMaster professors and employees are actively involved in the Poverty Roundtable and have advocated for university involvement and projects to address social justice issues in Hamilton.

Gary Warner, former Director of the Arts & Science Program, past Chair of the Hamilton Community Foundation and Poverty Roundtable member, reflected on student knowledge of Hamilton’s inequalities.

“I think students are likely not aware of the impact of income disparity related to postal codes in Hamilton, which is reflected, for example, in vastly different life expectancy – 21-year gap – and in test results and gradation rates in Hamilton's secondary schools.”

The McMaster Poverty Initiative (MPI) is the most notable example of the call for collaboration between students, staff and faculty to examine Hamilton’s social justice issues.

Jeff Wingard, MPI Coordinator and a member of the Vital Signs Report team, remarked upon the increase in student awareness and engagement with the community, especially in exploring the community’s booming arts scene.

“[But] I think on the flip side ... there are deep pockets of poverty and real hardship that exist in Hamilton, which I think get a bit lost if you don’t see it [on campus]”

Wingard also spoke about the need for continued research on community inequalities and the equal importance of communicating this research to diverse audiences, including students and the populations being studied.

McMaster has a reputation of being both a research-intensive institution and school with a strong spirit of volunteerism and community engagement, most recently exemplified by events such as Open Streets McMaster and MacServe.

Warner suggested that in keeping with the recommendations made by the Forward With Integrity Community Engagement Task Force, McMaster should strive to assign higher value to community-engaged research.

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