Even before the pandemic, the number of people in Canada who didn’t have enough to eat was at alarming levels.
Statistics Canada’s Community Health Survey reported in 2017-18 that 4.4 million people in Canada, including 1.2 million children under the age of 18, were unable to access enough food to eat.
The pandemic has exacerbated a problem that has been getting worse each year since the first Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) was conducted in 2005, says Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.
One food security agency estimates the number who are hungry may have doubled due to the job losses associated with the pandemic.
Food insecurity is defined as when people are struggling to feed themselves due to insufficient income, says Engler-Stringer. More than hunger, the term food insecurity includes not only whether people are getting enough to eat, but also if they are getting sufficient nutrition, as well as the social and psychological factors like the increased stress and anxiety around having inadequate food.
The repercussions of this inability to access enough good food are far-reaching. A report by PROOF, an interdisciplinary food insecurity research program based at the University of Toronto, concludes that children who don’t get enough to eat are prone to mental health problems and are at increased risk of developing asthma and depression.
Adults without enough healthy food face higher levels of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis and back problems.
Food insecurity has ramifications in the broader system too. “Health care costs, education costs, incarceration rates... these things are all connected,” says Engler-Stringer. Population-scale research shows that by creating conditions upstream for people to meet their needs, problems downstream can be avoided, saving money, she adds.
Food insecurity research also shines a spotlight on systemic racial inequities. The highest rates of food insecurity, according to a report by PROOF, are found among households where the survey respondent identified as Indigenous or Black.
Food insecurity isn’t just a big-city problem. Although food insecurity in rural areas is not well-studied, Engler-Stringer says older populations, in particular, may be impacted if they are not physically able to grow gardens or drive to the nearest grocery store in the city to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables.
In northern Canada, according to the CCHS, as much as half of the population may be food insecure. The high cost of transportation, a lack of infrastructure, lack of economic opportunities, and destruction of traditional foodways for Indigenous populations contribute to horrendous levels of food insecurity in these areas, explains Dr. Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
While food insecurity is a complex problem, poverty is at its root, says Engler-Stringer. “Incomes have stagnated, especially in the bottom half of the spectrum, relative to the rising cost of living. We need to have an honest conversation about income.”
Many food security advocates are calling for basic income supports or a living wage in Canada. We could learn from the example of Scandinavian countries which have done a better job of tackling food insecurity, she says.
Some of the other factors that can contribute to food insecurity are a lack of access to food in some communities, a lack of public transit, the precarious nature of work and the high cost of housing.
Edible food waste diversion
Many organizations are taking action to ease the plight of those who are food insecure. One strategy is to divert food that would otherwise be wasted. Second Harvest, a Toronto-based food rescue organization, has created an online platform (foodrescue.ca) to make it convenient for businesses with surplus edible food to connect directly with local charities that can redistribute that food.
The Food Rescue platform, which is available across Canada, takes a local approach to give donors a simple and fast system to connect directly with social service programs in their area, says Second Harvest CEO Lori Nikkel.
Farmers and other businesses can access the platform through a mobile app or they can call the central Toronto phone number and be put in touch with an agri-food procurement staff member in their area, she says.
“No amount of food is too big or too little,” says Nikkel, who hopes to get more government funding to continue a program that allowed Second Harvest to purchase surplus food from farmers and redistribute it to those in need during the first year of the pandemic. Bryan Dale, project manager of the University of Toronto’s Feeding the City project, says recovered foods can also be repurposed into community meals and cooking programs.
School nutrition programs
School lunch programs can help ensure children receive adequate nutrition since children consume about a third of their daily food intake while at school. Engler-Stringer says the data shows that children, regardless of family income level, are not eating very well at school.
Currently, there is a patchwork of programs but with a universal school nutrition program, all children would have the opportunity for a healthy meal at school, although she says the program would not necessarily be free.
Engler-Stringer says school nutrition programs could have other benefits such as getting children interested in healthy food, teaching them about food systems and supporting Canadian farmers through the purchase of local food.
Foodbanks and community food centres
Since the first foodbank opened in Edmonton as a temporary measure in 1981, thousands of foodbanks have sprung up across the country. While foodbanks are helping alleviate the pressing immediate need, they are more of a band-aid solution, says Engler-Stringer. Dale agrees. Many foodbanks only distribute non-perishable foods which may not be nutritious or culturally relevant to those receiving the food, he says.
In Toronto, THE STOP evolved from a traditional foodbank into a thriving community hub where neighbours participate in a broad range of programs that provide healthy food, foster social connections and build food skills. THE STOP has a community kitchen, greenhouse, garden, bake oven and farmers market.
Community food centres are based on a similar multi-dimensional model of creating welcoming community spaces where people come together to grow, cook and share food, and they are springing up in towns and cities across Canada.
Jacqueline Dwyer and Noel Livingston, founders of the Toronto Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective, have been working to make healthy food accessible and hope to create a thriving local food hub.
The pair have been growing vegetables in a greenhouse and on a small plot of land in Downsview Park in Toronto. In addition to vegetables, which they grow and sell in the park, they have had a teaching garden, taught food prep and food storage skills, hosted a pop-up market in an under-serviced area, and collaborated with community leaders to deliver hampers of healthy food.
“Food poverty is real. The research is there. The data is there,” says Dwyer, who holds a master’s degree in environmental studies from York University. “When we are not eating properly, everything falls apart, including your mind.”
Dwyer and Livingston have been working to reclaim the cultural food knowledge that has been lost through the generations and to empower themselves through the land, their work and the community.
“Everyone comes to the table with something they want to explore or they share their knowledge from their home country or from a family member such as a grandparent,” says Dwyer. “Food is the nucleus, the glue, the bond that brings people together,” adds Livingston.
The Black Farmers Collective invites farmers, youth, chefs and others to join with them in providing access to healthy food. Says Dwyer, “When we come together it’s powerful.”
- Feeding the City: Documenting Food System Experiences, Community Challenges & Local Resilience During Covid-19 and Beyond. University of Toronto and Ryerson University are partnering in this comprehensive project to collect data and stories from food consumers, food workers, producers, agri-food networks and social enterprises.
- PROOF is an interdisciplinary research program at the University of Toronto working to identify effective policy interventions to reduce household food insecurity in Canada.