When I think back to my report on child hunger in Canada, published on World Food Day in 2000, and the media attention it garnered, it seems as if we have come a long way in understanding that Canadian adults and children do experience food insecurity — that is, inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints — even if their hunger is not the same as that described by the mother-led families I study in Bangladesh. The most recent estimate, from the 2007-08 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), indicates that 7.7 percent of households were food insecure over the 12 months previous to the study.

In Canada, the concept of people being worried about not having enough food, reducing the quality of their food because they cannot afford the more expensive food items and cutting back on the amount they eat is understood as a consequence of poverty and related trade-offs people make in order to be able to meet other basic needs, such as shelter. There also seems to be a general understanding that food insecurity is bad for health, that nutritional intake is compromised and that people eat “the wrong kinds of foods.”

In other words, the way food insecurity is framed in Canada at least recognizes that it is a legitimate concern, that it is related to poverty and that it has adverse effects on people. This should be sufficient to engender a policy response.

The type of policy response to household-level food insecurity has changed little, however, since children’s nutrition programs and food banks emerged to respond to the economic hardship of the 1980s. The number of food banks has continuously increased since then, despite better and worse economic times. There were 2,141 food banks and affiliated agencies in 1998, compared to 3,540 in 2007. Valerie Tarasuk, a Toronto researcher, has documented that food banks acquire most of the food for distribution from industry rather than individual donations. But cash donations are usually more appreciated than food products to ensure that food baskets are nutritious.

At least food banks have always been firmly associated with household food insecurity, in contrast with other voluntary community-based food movements.

A major proponent of the voluntary movement, Breakfast for Learning (a foundation associated with Canadian Living magazine), was incorporated in 1992, and in 2007, it sponsored 2,367 programs throughout Canada (28 percent more than in 2006, according to its Web site). Provincial sponsorship has also provided partial funding to support children’s school-based breakfast programming in British Columbia and Ontario.

Carol Henry of the University of Saskatchewan. She has written a history of the school meals movement in Canada. She documents not only how they have proliferated widely in all Canadian jurisdictions but also how their purpose has been recast from a focus on feeding hungry children to one of providing an opportunity for learning readiness, offering before-school support for families and allowing people to experience a variety of foods (such as kiwi fruit and ethnic dishes).

As with many social programs targeted at the poor, the middle class has embraced children’s nutrition programs as being good for their children, and in so doing probably distanced the food insecure, who were originally the intended recipients. My own work on children’s nutrition programs in the 1980s and 1990s raised concerns about the social stigma attached to these programs, questioned whether the programs reached the children they intended to reach and disputed the presumption that poor children really skipped breakfast. Regardless, the voluntary movement flourished.

More recently I examined whether household strategies for coping with child hunger have changed over a decade (1996-97 to 2006-07), using the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY). The NLSCY reports only on child hunger, the most severe manifestation of household-level food insecurity. It studied children between the ages of two and nine in 1996-97 whose mothers (usually) reported that they had experienced hunger because there was no food in the house and no money to buy food. A decade later, the mothers of a similar sample of children were asked the same questions.

Two things emerged from my analysis. First, the determinants of child hunger have not changed over a decade — the same socially constructed factors, such as mother-led households, poverty and living in rental accommodation, are associated with this severe child disadvantage over time, although the rate was halved, which shows how general economic conditions raise or lower rates of food insecurity. Second, the coping mechanisms had not changed, except for poorer diet variety in the 2006-07 group, likely a result of rising food prices.

Individual consumption of locally produced food is not feasible for any but the most highly motivated consumer; organic is at best a niche market; and Canadian agriculturalists believe they produce a safe product under the current regulatory regime.

In fact, despite the increase in the number of food banks and greater school meal access, there has been a trend toward not using external supports such as food banks, school meal programs and social workers among these families. I interpret these findings as a demonstration that food assistance programming fails to reach an important segment of those they intend to reach, but also as evidence of a sociocultural shift toward a preference for managing one’s poverty privately, at home.

Two other movements were motivated, at least in part, by providing food assistance to the food insecure in their communities. First, the Canadian community kitchen movement, where bulk buying and communal cooking produce take-away meals at low cost. This movement was created in Montreal in 1986 and was firmly established in Vancouver a decade later. The Web site of the Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy indicates that there are more than 600 kitchens in Quebec, more than 500 in British Columbia and hundreds of others operating throughout Canada today. Despite program evaluations that raise doubts about their reach and their ability to provide sufficient food to alleviate food insecurity, they have continued to operate. But as with other poverty programming that is enjoyed by the nonpoor, they have evolved to incorporate cooking skills and community engagement mandates.

The second is the community garden movement, which emerged in the mid-1990s and has been popping up across North America, one famous example being the one on the White House grounds. The basis of this movement is food localism, one of whose gurus is Michael Pollan. Some of the aims of the local food movement are to support local farmers and to promote greater regional food sovereignty and the consumption of healthier foods. Food insecurity is only a secondary objective.

After collecting in-depth interviews from farm women in Canada, who have a unique vantage point as both food producers and gatekeepers of the family meal, we concluded that individual consumption of locally produced food is not feasible for any but the most highly motivated consumer; that organic is at best a niche market; and that Canadian agriculturalists believe they produce a safe product under the current regulatory regime. In a chapter in a 2011 volume by Solomon Benatar and Gillian Brock, we suggested that, despite good intentions, the preoccupation with ideologically based alternative food systems could very well prevent us from mitigating global food security.

We should all agree that the greatest achievement of the Food and Agricultural Organization, the first United Nations agency, founded in 1945, was the virtual elimination of famine. There seems to be less awareness that a global food system is necessary to feed the world and that we have globally failed to invest in its development. Food price shocks cause hunger, which can be solved only with more money to buy the food or the imposition of price controls on the foods.

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In a recent paper examining food provisioning practices of ultrapoor female heads of household in Bangladesh, we found that food consumption among them was extremely elastic: as the price of rice increased, the quality of rice and other supplementary food declined; and when the price increased further, a meal or two a day was skipped. Even the subsistence agriculturalists we studied did not consume the food they produced — it was too valuable to eat when it could be converted to cash. One woman explained that it was hard to take an egg away from a child but that it would be worth more as a chicken to sell.

So if the poor in Canada and in Bangladesh need money to buy food, and not increased local production in order to be food secure, what does the community food security movement offer them? Not much, would be my reply; certainly giving them vouchers to go to the farmers’ market where foods are priced at a premium seems misguided, if not disingenuous. It does seem as if the food localism groups have realized that they are no longer in the food-insecurity-reduction business, as their rhetoric is less and less directed at reducing hunger.

So where are we now? We have income-related household food insecurity produced by the same socioeconomic conditions; we have responses in the form of food banks and food assistance that are largely voluntary and locally based; we have a series of community-based programs that began with the intention to support the food insecure but have now become a food localism movement that has ignited primarily the wealthier members of our communities; we have no policy response to food pricing either in Canada or as part of the increasingly corporatized food production system; we have genuine food threats related to climate change, overpopulation and agricultural disinvestment; and on top of it all, we have an obesity epidemic that is related to overconsumption and the harms associated with nutrition transition.

Obesity is a major problem in household-level food insecurity policy. In earlier days, we convinced the general public that people could be food insecure and not look like famine sufferers. For some reason, nowadays, we cannot convince the general public or policymakers that the food insecure are not necessarily overweight or obese.

In fact, we have dangled in front of us the promise of support for the purchase of much-needed fruits and vegetables for the poor only if we concede that they are victims of the obesity epidemic. The logic is that since those living in low-income households are more likely to be overweight and obese, the food insecure, who are all poor, must be as well. Thus, obesity prevention strategies should be considered as strategies for the food insecure (with the implication that nothing else is required).

The counterarguments are that among a population where 50 percent or more are overweight or obese, less than 10 percent are food insecure. The US Institute of Medicine recently assessed the relationship between food insecurity and obesity and concluded that it is, at best, a problem of white women, and that other associations are inconsistent. The institute also concluded that it is stress as much as it is the imprudent dietary choices the poor make that lead them to be overweight.

A paper that I published with Valerie Tarasuk in 2010 tends to confirm this. We found that almost all the nutritional inadequacy found in the group of food-insecure women could be corrected if they had additional servings of the foods they already consumed. Another publication I authored with Theresa Glanville indicated that foodinsecure children generally did not consume soda pop, although their mothers did, as well as very high quantities of coffee, the latter probably to reduce the sensation of hunger.

While we would suggest that structural interventions that reduce our obesogenic food and activity environment should be implemented, it should not be in the name of the food insecure.

So once we dismiss the existing policy initiatives that claim some relationship to food insecurity, what food insecurity policy is needed in Canada? The most obvious answer is we need an anti-poverty policy. In our climate, housing security trumps food security, so it is apt that there be a policy of housing first for the precariously housed and the homeless. I am not convinced that food insecurity has decreased in this population as they could well be food insecure in their new abodes. The 2009-10 cycle of the CCHS will allow us to have a postrecession update on food insecurity in Canada.

But we know from several sources across Canada how insufficient are the incomes of those on income supports or disability pensions. We need to continue to advocate for, at the very least, cost-of-living increases in the incomes of these groups, and we should be alert for the possibility of increasing food insecurity among our elderly pensioners.

The working poor present the greatest challenge. They already represent the majority of food bank users and they make up at least 60 percent of those who are food insecure. This group is affected by the problem of low minimum wage, restrictions in employment assistance eligibility, weakened union protection and job uncertainty. In a forthcoming analysis of food insecurity among Canada’s labour force using the CCHS, we examine the characteristics of food-insecure workers as well as their work environments. One of our most important findings is that living in the province of Quebec is the equivalent of a resident worker having a baccalaureate degree (a major protective factor for food insecurity). Other jurisdictions should consider how public policy (such as daycare policy) can give the same protection from food insecurity.

In addition to creative, structural anti-poverty policy, I think we have arrived at a juncture in our global food system that calls for an examination of food price policy. In my work on milk insecurity — lack of access to milk because of price — and my policy synthesis on a failed attempt to create an over-quota system for poor families to access milk (aptly entitled “Spilt Milk”), I have argued that policy that tries both to protect the producer and assure supply for the consumer should be adjusted when it harms a core vulnerable segment of the population. Other countries support staples for their vulnerable citizens, and we may have to do this in Canada. We have been experimenting with this type of policy for our Arctic citizens, and while such strategies are not perfect, we may need to attempt them in other regions of Canada.

My last recommendation is that we need to recognize that food insecurity policy — policy initiatives directed at supporting individuals and families who lack access to food because of financial constraints — is not the flip side of food security policy — policy that aims at providing healthy and safe food for all. At best, food security policy is unrelated to food insecurity, and at worst, it renders food insecurity invisible.

Photo: Shutterstock

Lynn McIntyre
Lynn McIntyre is professor emerita of Community Health Sciences and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary, and a PROOF founding researcher.

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