How Do You Save Four Million Canadians From Hunger?
Empty refrigerators, skipped meals, and famished kids are all signs of a broken economy. To fix it we need to start thinking of food as a human right
- by Raizel RobinRaizel Robin Updated 16:21, Feb. 24, 2021 | Published 16:16, Mar. 6, 2019This article was published over a year ago. Some information may no longer be current.
It’s 9 a.m. and the coffee’s on at the Bayers Westwood Family Resource Centre. The narrow, two-storey building is nestled in the middle of a public housing project in the west end of Halifax. The front door opens into a crowded sitting room.
A number of single parents have come for the cooking classes and are dropping off their kids at the free child-minding service. Other people are here for company. But a larger group is looking for something they struggle to find on their own: a bite to eat. One of the centre’s main draws is a small counter where coffee, tea, and a plate of day-old muffins and bagels are served—regular donations from the charity Feed Nova Scotia. Across the hall is the Trading Post, a small room stocked with packaged foods clients have received from their local food bank but that they can’t, or don’t, use: cans of Campbell’s soup, Aylmer diced tomatoes, Heinz baked beans, and Zoodles line the floor-to-ceiling shelves.
Not all of it is nutritious. Everyone understands that. But it’s something. And when you have a community to feed, you do what you can. The predicament weighs on the centre’s hands-on, energetic executive director, Donna Sutton. “People come in the morning for a bagel and coffee,” Sutton says. “They come back in the afternoon for a muffin. That’s breakfast and lunch. Then they just have to worry about dinner.” With meager earnings and no access to credit, many of Sutton’s clients are facing cold truths. Some weeks, stopping off at Sobeys means there might not be enough left to buy medication or pay rent or put gas in the car to get to work. Because groceries are often the only flexible item in a tight budget, they are what families tend to sacrifice first. Families that have to make these kinds of trade-offs are called food insecure.
Food insecurity is largely about the struggle to afford food. Insufficient social assistance, increases in the number of low-wage, part-time, or contract jobs, and a lack of affordable housing have created financial constraints that make it more and more difficult to eat. Proof, a food-insecurity research group at the University of Toronto, breaks down the problem a few ways. Worrying that you’ll run out of provisions before you manage to buy more is “marginally food insecure.” According to Proof’s analysis of the most recent nationwide data from Statistics Canada, about 580,000 households fell into that category in 2012. If you compromise on the quality or quantity of your portions, you’re “moderately food insecure.” That category includes 786,100 households. Another 336,700 are severely food insecure—that means they skip meals or spend days without eating. All this adds up to 1.7 million households, which translates to nearly 4 million Canadians. That’s a conservative estimate, because some provinces and territories can, and have, opted out of more recent StatsCan surveys. The surveys also miss the most at risk: incarcerated people, remote rural residents, people living on-reserve, the homeless.
It also seems to be getting worse. Comprehensive data has only been available since 2007, when national monitoring began, but even in that short period, the overall proportion of households that are moderately or severely food insecure increased from 7.7 percent in 2007 to 8.3 percent in 2012. Hunger may be linked in the popular imagination with images of destitution, but the food insecure can include restaurant staff, delivery drivers, cashiers, and janitors. They are our coworkers, our neighbours, our relatives.
Lower-income populations are affected more than others: recent immigrants, people of colour, single mothers. Children are especially vulnerable—one in six live in food-insecure households. The problem of hunger is also urgent on postsecondary campuses. Meal Exchange, a non-profit aimed at tackling food insecurity at Canadian universities, published the results of a study in 2016 that showed half of all students “had to sacrifice buying healthy food” in order to pay for books, tuition, or rent. Affected groups will likely have a tougher time in 2019. Canada’s Food Price Report, produced annually by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph, predicts grocery bills this year could spike by 3.5 percent—with the price of vegetables jumping as much as 6 percent. For a Canadian family of four that spends $223 a week on groceries, the higher cost will mean coming up with an extra $33 a month to keep eating the same way. The price increase will likely put the new, healthier recommendations from the updated Canada’s Food Guide (more plants, less sugar, less saturated fat) further out of reach as household diets are forced to shift even more dramatically toward cheaper, shelf-stable, processed options—foods with little or no real flavour or nutritional value.
Everyone in Canada will end up paying a price, whether they live in a food-insecure household or not. A 2018 study estimated that the economic burden of Canadians failing to meet healthy eating recommendations is roughly $13.8 billion per year—$5.1 billion of which is directly related to health care spending, and the rest is linked to factors that include lost productivity. The food insecure are at greater risk of chronic, diet-related conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Health care costs are also between 23 and 121 percent higher in households that struggle to access nutritious food, with costs climbing alongside the extent of the deprivation experienced. Food insecurity is a drain on mental-health resources as well. A 2018 Canadian study showed that the proportion of severely food-insecure adults receiving treatment over the past year for conditions that included anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and suicidal thoughts was more than double that of adults who had enough to eat.
Programs like welfare, family allowance, and employment insurance were introduced, in part, to help alleviate the consequences of being food insecure. But social assistance is no longer up to the task. During the 1970s in Toronto, one in ten people lived in poverty. Today, it’s one in five. Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks, a collective focused on tracking food security in the city, calculated last year that if the average rent for Vancouver low-income housing ($687 per month) is subtracted from the monthly welfare rate for a single adult ($710), only $23 remains. In other words, a person on income assistance has less than a dollar per day to spend on food. It’s not hard to imagine that, as economic trends continue to chip away at stable, long-term employment, food insecurity will soon overwhelm existing social assistance programs. What Canadians need is a food policy that can ensure an adequate standard of living to offset the biggest effect of those economic disruptions: hunger.
Food-security and antipoverty advocates have been working with the federal government to develop such a policy—one that recognizes adequate food as a human right, much like water or clean air. But lack of political will means little progress has been made. The country has ratified numerous international agreements affirming the right to food, and an Action Plan for Food Security was proposed in 1998. But hardly anything from it has been executed. The inaction underscores that Canada has never really strategically addressed hunger as a national issue and has never appreciated food insecurity as a reality within its borders. Instead, we have off-loaded the job of feeding our citizens to food banks, soup kitchens, and charitable efforts such as the Bayers Westwood Family Resource Centre.
With nearly 20 percent of its population affected, Halifax has the highest rate of food insecurity among Canadian cities. Some contributing factors are unique to the area: high student numbers, an influx of job seekers from Cape Breton, and nearby rural areas gutted by the shift from small-scale farming to agribusiness and by the decline of industries like coal and steel. But the city is also a bellwether for many changes taking hold across the country, such as the advent of so-called precarious work, which has increased in Canada by 50 percent in the past two decades, and rising housing costs. The jobs Halifax offers are mostly service-sector gigs—often short-term or contract work without benefits or security. About one in three Haligonians lives in rented housing, with 43 percent putting a third or more of their earnings toward rent. All this influences what residents eat or whether they can eat at all.
“I can’t afford breakfast,” says John Hemr, who lives in the Bayers Westwood housing project. He is sixty-six, and with his red shirt, hazel eyes, belly, and greying beard, looks a bit like a hard-luck Santa. Before receiving old-age pension last year, he lived on a $600 monthly disability cheque from an accident on the job thirty years ago, when he worked as a TV repairman. His arms were elbow deep in the back of a set he was fixing when his colleague plugged in the wrong cord, and Hemr was blown back, electrocuted. It took him months to recover, and ever since, his legs go numb if he does too much activity or lifts even a few pounds.
As a single man without children, Hemr doesn’t qualify for extra help, like a child tax benefit. One brother gives him a few bucks now and then. Even with his subsidized rent of $175, Hemr’s monthly income disappears quickly. He spends $70 on electricity, $70 on a phone plan, and $100 on high-blood-pressure medication. Last year, Hemr spent $100 a month on cigarettes. He smokes to help himself relax but mostly to curb his appetite. “I tried quitting cold turkey,” he explains. “But my grocery bills were too high, and I gained thirty pounds.”
His budget left about $20 a week for groceries, depending on the season. “People look at me and think, ‘You’re a big guy. You’re healthy,'” says Hemr. “No. I’m unhealthy. To be healthy, I have to eat three meals a day. I get one meal a day.” Usually, that’s pasta, white rice, or potatoes, sometimes with a can of soup or a side of packaged breakfast sausages.
Food insecurity can be a hidden problem. “You don’t have to look hungry to be hungry,” says Catherine L. Mah, a researcher with Proof who teaches at Dalhousie University. Nor is it restricted to the unemployed. According to the data, over 60 percent of the food insecure across Canada actually earn wages. It’s just that the money isn’t enough to pay for food. Luckily, there’s usually some way to get by: a sale on pasta at the local grocery store, a meal at a soup kitchen, a food hamper, a school breakfast program, or a relative’s kitchen. But it’s “the getting by” that’s exhausting. “Food insecurity wears you down because you must constantly cope and manage,” says Mah. How people cope and manage—what the individual compromises look like week to week—may vary, but the struggle remains the same whether you’re in Halifax, Montreal, or Saskatoon.