We Need Bold Solutions to End Food Insecurity in Canada

We Need Bold Solutions to End Food Insecurity in Canada

By: Zahra Mamdani, Aysha Butt, Brooke Campus

Photo Credit: $15 and Fairness UofT care of Simran Dhunna

 

Access to sufficient, nutritious food should be a fundamental human right. This right is recognized in several international legal agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 25(1)) and specifically in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (art. 11).Yet, even in prosperous countries like Canada, many people are going hungry and struggling to meet their basic food needs. Approximately 3.2 million individuals in Canada (or 1.3 million households), including one million children, face food insecurity. This amounts to one in every eight households, i.e. over 12%. Food insecurity has been rising in Canada over the last decade. In 2004, 8.8% of Canadians lived in food insecure households. Food insecurity is a major public health issue and our governments can no longer turn a blind eye to this matter.

Food insecurity cannot be taken lightly. There is strong and growing evidence that food insecurity can have severe physical and mental health impacts. Individuals in food insecure households tend to have higher rates of many chronic health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Furthermore, those experiencing food insecurity often experience psychological stress, depression and in the case of children and adolescents, even suicide ideation. Importantly, food insecurity is closely associated with higher mortality rates. The impact of food insecurity on health is further realized through elevated healthcare costs for adults in food insecure households, which are 76% higher than the costs for adults in food secure households. In other words, food insecurity has a detrimental impact on the health of Canadians and ends up unnecessarily burdening our healthcare system.

As emerging public health professionals, we are deeply troubled by the rise in food insecurity in Canada and its health implications. Access Alliance, a community health organization in Toronto, has been conducting a study focused on food insecurity among residents in two low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto (Taylor Massey neighbourhood and Rockcliffe-Smythe neighbourhood). As a part of this program of research, we have been working to examine the root causes of food insecurity, how people respond and cope with food insecurity, and the negative social and health impacts of food insecurity. Findings indicate that people are going hungry or struggling to meet their food needs because they cannot afford to buy the food they need, and also because nutritious and/or culturally-specific foods were unaffordable or inaccessible in their neighbourhoods. The barriers around affordability and accessibility are rooted in deeper structural problems, including poverty, unemployment/under-employment, insufficient social assistance, and high cost of living in cities like Toronto.

“barriers such as income insecurity, precarious employment, housing insecurity, and educational inequities were key predictors of household food insecurity. These systemic inequities in income, employment, and housing tend to disproportionately affect women and racialized communities; as such food insecurity patterns also mirror and reproduce the pre-existing racial and gender inequities that exist in other places of Canadian society. For example, 15.2% of recent immigrant households (less than five years in Canada) were found to be food insecure. The household food insecurity rate for Indigenous communities (25.7%) and Black communities (29.4%) were found to be more than two times national average.”

 

Similar to these findings, analyses by PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research team found that systemic barriers such as income insecurity, precarious employment, housing insecurity, and educational inequities were key predictors of household food insecurity. These systemic inequities in income, employment, and housing tend to disproportionately affect women and racialized communities; as such food insecurity patterns also mirror and reproduce the pre-existing racial and gender inequities that exist in other places of Canadian society. For example, 15.2% of recent immigrant households (less than five years in Canada) were found to be food insecure. The household food insecurity rate for Indigenous communities (25.7%) and Black communities (29.4%) were found to be more than two times national average.

This growing evidence underscores the need for new and bold solutions to address food insecurity. We need to expand and continually improve accessibility and quality of food-focused programs, such as food banks, community garden initiatives, and community food programs (e.g. food box programs, community dining programs). Among other things, these programs have to be made more culturally-sensitive and newcomer-friendly. For example, food banks need to carry diverse range of food items that reflect the needs of different ethnic/cultural groups that face high food insecurity. Similarly, we need more workshops for newcomer families on how to prepare food items that may not be familiar to them, or solutions on how to eat healthy on low budget.

These food-related programs, however, often constitute Band-Aid solutions that solely tackle immediate or emergency food needs of food insecure households. There is an urgent need for bold policy solutions with proven capacity to overcome the root causes of food insecurity. In other words, we need policy actions tackling economic and structural determinants of food insecurity, including those geared at reducing poverty, unemployment, low wages and precarious employment. These solutions need to go hand in hand with policies to make basic needs more affordable, and make our society more equitable. Other policy recommendations that can work to reduce food insecurity in Canada including affordable housing, transit, and utilities, universal education, universal childcare, universal pharma-care, and universal dental care. It is essential that these policy actions are implemented in an inter-disciplinary, cross-jurisdictional and coordinated way that brings together different levels of government, non-profit, and private sector stakeholders. Siloed approaches that tackle just one or two determinants will not be enough to adequately address this issue.

 

“despite strong and growing evidence, the current government of Ontario is taking steps that will exacerbate food insecurity in the province. The PC government in Ontario, led by Doug Ford, is planning to cancel the increase in minimum wage (which is set to increase to $15 from January 2019), reduce the increase in social assistance rates from 3% as planned, to 1.5%, and has already cancelled the Basic Income Pilot. These regressive actions indicate that the current Ontario government does not understand what causes food insecurity and are not interested in reducing food insecurity.”

 

However, despite strong and growing evidence, the current government of Ontario is taking steps that will exacerbate food insecurity in the province. The PC government in Ontario, led by Doug Ford, is planning to cancel the increase in minimum wage (which is set to increase to $15 from January 2019), reduce the increase in social assistance rates from 3% as planned, to 1.5%, and has already cancelled the Basic Income Pilot. These regressive actions indicate that the current Ontario government does not understand what causes food insecurity and are not interested in reducing food insecurity.

The launch of Opportunity for All – Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy by the federal government that plans to reduce poverty by 20% by 2020 and by 50% by 2030 is a step in the right direction. Routinely measuring and reducing food insecurity is one of the key goals of this strategy. The strategy also includes interventions in multiple domains to reduce poverty among different population sub-groups (Indigenous communities, seniors, families with children, working families, and low income families in general). The action plan includes boosting the Canada Child Benefit (and indexing it to cost of living), increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement for single seniors, creating a $40 billion investment (over 10 years) on Canada’s first ever National Housing Strategy, investments in public transit, and more. However, as highlighted in calls to action from CACHC, Color of Poverty-Color of Change, and other advocacy groups, some key actions are missing in this strategy, including a commitment to introduce universal childcare, pharma-care, and dental care, promote decent work, and take proactive actions to overcome systemic poverty and economic inequities based on race, gender and immigrant/newcomer status.

The City of Toronto has also launched a multi-pronged Poverty Reduction Strategy with a commitment to “eliminate hunger” and “increase access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food.” Proposed strategies include promoting affordable housing, transit equity, and decent work. These solutions also look promising. However, it is critically important that different levels of government align and work together on their poverty reduction strategies.

We believe that it is possible to end hunger and food insecurity in Canada. In order to do this, we need to come together as a society and as a nation and jointly implement evidence-based, bold, coordinated solutions that can overcome the root socio-economic causes of food insecurity.

 

 

About the Authors:

All authors are/were Masters of Public Health students at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and worked at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services as part of their practicum placements.

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