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Facing the Facts: Food Insecurity in the Spotlight

By Jessica Huras

Food insecurity has long been a significant problem in Canada, with research showing that a growing number of Canadians were struggling to afford nutritious food even before the pandemic left millions without reliable sources of income. “We knew before the pandemic that we had a large problem, and that problem had been festering,” says Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto and the principal investigator of the PROOF food insecurity research program.

Research by PROOF indicates that one in eight Canadians reported experiencing food security prior to the pandemic. “What’s happened since the pandemic for some people is that their economic circumstances have gotten a whole lot worse,” says Tarasuk. “I think COVID has put a gun to our head to say we’ve got to get this figured out.”

Daily Bread Food Bank has seen a 200 percent increase in new clients since March, according to CEO Neil Hetherington. In April 2020, the Government of Canada announced an investment of $100 million to help food banks meet this surge in demand and support Canadians facing financial uncertainty amid the pandemic.

Food banks have grappled with feeding a growing number of Canadians, while simultaneously adapting to the new health and safety challenges of operating amid the pandemic.

Hetherington says that 30 percent of Daily Bread’s food bank locations were forced to close down. “Our distribution points were cut off,” he explains. “It’s not like a supermarket where the employees arrive for work every day. You’re talking about a food distribution network that exists in community centres, which closed down or were run by volunteers who themselves were in a vulnerable group and couldn’t continue.”

According to Hetherington, racialized and low-income Canadians are statistically more likely to access food banks and are also in a higher risk group for contracting COVID-19. This means populations that were most vulnerable to start with have been most significantly impacted by health risks and food insecurity amid the pandemic.

In Manitoba, a curbside meal pick-up program has offered one possible solution for helping those in need access healthy food, while also protecting their safety by complying with physical distancing recommendations. Everyone Eats, a partnership between Brandon University Food Services, the Brandon Food Council, the John Howard Society and Assiniboine Community College, allows clients to place meal orders online based on a pay-what-you-can donation model.

“It’s a different way of getting food to people that’s safe and respects physical distancing, but also gives people choice and agency in the type of foods that they can eat,” says Rob Moquin, executive director of Food Matters Manitoba.

The initiative also helps to reduce some of the social stigma associated with food charity, with clients making a confidential donation that can range from $0 to $100 for their meal. “If somebody is not paying anything for that food, nobody else ever knows,” says Moquin.

In Toronto, Feed It Forward’s grocery store also operates based on a pay-what-you-can model. The store is stocked with everything from fresh produce to pantry staples like flour and pet food, most of which is rescued from traditional grocery stores, restaurants and food terminals. Feed It Forward runs a number of other initiatives, including a mobile food truck and food hamper program, focused on saving unsold food and redistributing it to those in need.

The government is also funding this model of cycling usable food that might have otherwise been wasted back to vulnerable Canadians. Building upon April’s $100 million pledge, in June a federal investment of $50 million to support a surplus food rescue program was announced. Second Harvest, Food Banks Canada and more than 100 food businesses and non-profit organizations have partnered with the initiative to reallocate excess eggs, potatoes, meat and other goods to Canadians facing food insecurity. In October, another $100 million was added to the Emergency Food Security Fund; the first portion of the funding provided approximately six million meals to those in need.

The program allows producers who have food surpluses related to the shutdown of the restaurant and hospitality industries to minimize their losses while also supporting food banks in need of supplies. About 10 percent of goods are directed specifically to vulnerable communities in northern Canada.

Some Canadian cities have funnelled resources into community gardens in an effort to offer residents better access to nutritious food. In Victoria, B.C., for example, the Get Growing Victoria initiative has seen over 50,000 free
vegetable seedlings distributed through local community and non-profit organizations.

Hetherington says that community gardens can have positive social benefits, but he doesn’t see them as having a measurable impact on Canada’s growing food insecurity problem. “They can help with social isolation, and community gardening can be done at a distance, which is great, but in terms of a solution to food insecurity, I don’t see any data that would support that,” he says.

Hetherington also points out that having free time to grow your own food is a luxury that vulnerable populations often don’t have. “If you think about a single parent, they barely have enough time to parent and work their job, so do they really have the time and resources to be able to participate in a
community garden?”

In spite of the hope offered by these government funding boosts and community initiatives, PROOF’s Tarasuk says that impactful improvements in food security can only happen when we start addressing the reasons why so many Canadians can’t afford food in the first place.

“One thing that we have been documenting for years is the huge disconnect between food charity and food insecurity,” says Tarasuk. “By our best estimate, fewer than one in four food insecure households ever make their way into a food bank or a charitable food distribution organization. And we have absolutely no evidence that the receipt of food through those venues is sufficient to shift somebody into a food secure situation.”

As both Tarasuk and Hetherington point out, food insecurity isn’t caused by a lack of access to healthy food; it’s caused by not having enough money to buy food. “The new clients that are arriving to us, 80 percent of them it’s because of job loss,” says Hetherington.

Tarasuk says that although the new government funding directed to food banks is better than nothing, benefit programs like CERB and the Canada Child Benefit can have a more meaningful impact on long-term food security.

“We did a study in the winter before COVID looking at the effects of the Canada Child Benefit, which was introduced in 2016, on food insecurity in Canada,” says Tarasuk. “We had the opportunity to look at the before and after of the Canada Child Benefit, and we could see that it was doing good – that it was mitigating severe food insecurity.”

Ensuring all Canadians have the income needed to consistently buy healthy food for themselves means putting the needs of vulnerable communities at the forefront when developing government policy, says Tarasuk. She says that the rise in food insecurity outlined by the recent Statistics Canada report, for example, which shows that CERB left many at-risk populations without the financial support they needed.

“There were people who couldn’t get CERB either because they hadn’t worked enough, they couldn’t manage the application process, or they were working under the table,” says Tarasuk. “Whatever the issues were, they were in need of income and they didn’t have any, and that’s what the report is telling us. We’ve got a bunch of people who, for whatever reason, that system wasn’t good enough for.”

Tarasuk adds that the widespread misbelief that food banks can solve food insecurity can undermine efforts to address the income issues that are the heart of the problem. “Nothing will compare to the difference we would make if we just simply gave those parents more money so that they could go to the store and buy food,” she says.

Facts & Stats

14.6 percent of Canadians live in a household where food insecurity has been a problem in the past 30 days, an increase from 10.5 percent two years ago.

Daily Bread food banks are serving close to 20,000 individuals each week in the Toronto area, compared to approximately 15,000 in 2019, an increase of close to 25%.

32 percent of food bank clients surveyed by Daily Bread had at least one member of their household working before COVID-19 and 76 percent of these households reported job loss. 28 percent of respondents received CERB, but they were still unable to afford their basic needs.

1.2 million children under 18 in Canada live in families struggling to afford food.

Black households are 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure than white households.

Sources: Statistics Canada, Daily Bread Food Bank, University of Toronto, Foodshare.net

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