Guest Post: By Dr. Sharon Kirkpatrick.
Today’s blog post is written by Dr. Sharon Kirkpatrick. Sharon has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Toronto. Her career has included research positions with Health Canada, the University of Calgary, and the National Cancer Institute in Washington D.C. Driving her work is the need to understand barriers to nutritional health among marginalized populations, with the goal of improving food security in Canada.
Millions of people worldwide are not able to access the food that they need to live active and healthy lives. Although Canada is an affluent nation with a high standard of living, Canadians are not immune to this problem, referred to as food insecurity. Food insecurity is a serious public health concern because it is associated with compromised nutrition and poor physical and mental health among adults and children.
According to the most recent national data, almost 1 million – or one in ten – Canadian households experienced food insecurity in 2007-08 because they didn’t have enough money for food. This means that one or more of the adults or children living in these households relied on low-cost foods, cut the size of their meals or skipped meals, or in more severe situations, went a full day without eating because of a lack of money. The numbers based on the available data likely do not capture the full extent of food insecurity in Canada since surveys used to monitor the problem tend to underrepresent segments of the population that are at risk, including homeless individuals and Aboriginal people living on reserves.
Food insecurity is a problem that arises in the context of poverty. Among families struggling with poverty, food may be one of a number of basic needs that is compromised. For example, food insecure families may also be housing insecure, living in housing that is in a poor state of repair, crowded and/or unaffordable. Another troubling facet of the problem is that strategies used to try to avoid or minimize food shortages, such as delaying payments of the rent or utility bills and borrowing money, may contribute to an even more precarious financial situation, worsening long-term vulnerability to food insecurity and other manifestations of poverty.
Effectively addressing food insecurity in the long term requires targeting the underlying cause, poverty, through social policies that ensure that Canadian families have adequate resources to meet their basic needs. Such policies relate to housing affordability, minimum wage rates and other employment standards, employment insurance, and social assistance. However, the main response to food insecurity in Canada is currently food-based community programs, such as food banks. Food banks emerged as an emergency response to problems of food insecurity in the early 1980s. They have since become an integral part of Canada’s safety net for families struggling with poverty and food shortages. Three decades after the first Canadian food bank was established in Edmonton in 1981, there are now hundreds of food banks and other emergency food-based programs in operation across the country and it is estimated that close to a million Canadians receive assistance from food banks each month.
Concerns about the capacity of food banks and other food-based programs to effectively address food insecurity stem from the fact that they do not address the poverty that underlies this problem. As well, the reliance of such organizations on donated food and labour can limit their ability to adequately meet the needs of food-insecure Canadians. Further, the existing data suggest that many families and individuals who are struggling with food insecurity do not make use of food banks, possibly due to issues related to stigma. However, in the absence of government action to address poverty and food insecurity through social policy, there is increasing attention to ensuring that food banks and other food-based programs are structured in a way that enables them to provide the maximum benefit possible to those in need of assistance. While this does not in any way mitigate the need for long-term policy-based solutions to eliminate food insecurity in Canada, food banks and other food-based programs may be able to help address the immediate needs of Canadians facing shortages in resources for food.
To better meet the needs of individuals seeking assistance, some food banks have put policies in place in terms of the types of foods and beverages that will be accepted from donors. This is part of a strategy to improve the quality and appropriateness of the items distributed to recipients in an effort to promote their nutritional health. Donors can support the mission of food banks by becoming engaged in the issue of food insecurity in their communities – at a minimum, this could involve making donations that are consistent with health and nutrition and with the cultural preferences of the individuals served by the particular organization. At a broader level, supporting efforts to address food insecurity could involve helping to build political will for effective policy actions to eliminate poverty. Such actions are needed to address the fact that currently, one in ten households struggle to get adequate food, a reality that is unacceptable in Canada.