Photo Credit: Joel Muniz via Unsplash
Food security, along with reliable housing, job security and access to health care are crucial for people to have a decent quality of life. Despite Canada being a developed country, many Canadians struggle with food insecurity every day. This struggle has only increased while the country deals with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the United Nations, food insecurity refers to the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet that consists of quality and a sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so. Household food insecurity is often linked with the household’s financial status, as this often dictates one’s ability to access adequate food.
While there has been a great deal of progress in terms of combating food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition, there has been a rise in food insecurity across the world for the fourth year in a row, and the pandemic is not helping matters.
Prior to COVID-19, the number of undernourished people worldwide increased to more than 820 million. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has already added onto these challenges by exposing even more vulnerabilities in global food systems and limiting access to health services.
Recent World Food Program reports estimate that, due to the coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. The pandemic is pushing more children into a state of severe malnutrition. This has potential to result in an increase in preventable child mortality and life-altering physical, cognitive and behavioral development problems for millions of children globally.
David Beasley, executive director of the program, believes that the socio-economic impact of the pandemic is more devastating than the disease itself.
“Many people in low- and middle-income groups, who a few months ago were poor but just about getting by, now find their livelihoods have been destroyed,” said Beasley. “As a result, hunger rates are sky-rocketing around the world.”
Measures and restrictions put in place to contain the spread of the disease have limited many individuals’ mobility and opportunities to work and earn an income. As a result, the ability for many people to afford food, among other basic needs, has been strained.
Reports from Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), a multi-provincial food rescue organization, show that this too is the case in Canada. The number of Canadians who struggle to put food on their tables has increased since the beginning of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, food insecurity has increased across the country, making this issue more urgent than ever. With COVID surging, layoffs mounting, and a hard-hit economy, the problem is sure to worsen,” said Nick Saul, CEO of CFCC. “Demand at food banks has surged, highlighting the ongoing needs of people on the economic margins. It also indicates how close many other people are to those margins, if just one paycheque doesn’t come in as expected.”
Currently, approximately one in seven Canadians have issues with food insecurity.
Food insecurity can be experienced by anyone. The common factor that drives food insecurity in Canada however is being low income. Those experiencing food insecurity in Canada usually do not have enough money to put food on the table while trying to manage other basic necessities. The statistics demonstrate that there are many people in Canada going hungry despite having a job or receiving an income from some other source.
Seeing as the issue is driven primarily by low income, the government’s public policy response is income-based. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has to date been issued to 8.7 million people at a cost of $72.5 billion. An additional $37 billion is now being allocated to the establishment of new sickness and care benefits.
While none of the policies described were explicitly designed to address household food insecurity, they have had substantial impact on this problem because they provided much needed income for those unable to earn money due to the pandemic. Interventions that provide a modest increase to income can go a long way in addressing food insecurity in Canada.
Those who face the biggest challenges, however, are Canadians ineligible for the new benefits, including the two million currently dependent on provincial social assistance. Many of these are the individuals who face the reality of food insecurity.
“All of those people are going to be very worried about their food. So more and more people coming to the community food centres [and other] organizations that run across this country,” said Saul. “That’s a deep concern that, as a society, we have to face up to and do better going forward.”
Unsurprisingly, charities that provide food security support to Canadians are already under unprecedented strain.
Second Harvest in Ontario, Canada’s largest food rescue charity, diverts food from going to waste and uses it to feed the hungry. With unexpected closures in many foodservice businesses, they had more donations in the most recent month than at any point in their 35-year history. Despite this spike, there is still a question as to how the charity will meet food demand long-term.
“In the past few months [Second Harvest] has been able to do a lot of work and made countless distributions with the surge in donations,” said Kiera Toffelmire, Vice President of Programs and Partnerships. “We are, however, expecting that spike in food donations to slow as the months go on. That’s a real concern given the rising demand we are seeing for food security support.”
Despite this strain, food banks across the province continue to work to improve food security as more individuals continue to become reliant on these organizations for food. This is thanks in part to specific investments made by the federal government.
In April 2020, the federal government announced up to $100 million through the Emergency Food Security Fund to Canadian food banks and other national food rescue organizations. These funds have been allocated to help improve access to food for people experiencing food insecurity in Canada due to the pandemic. An additional $100 million was later invested by the government through the same program in October. To date, this funding has supported over 1,800 individual projects, which are estimated to have helped serve six million meals to over two million Canadians.
In August 2020, the Government of Canada announced a $50 million investment through the Surplus Food Rescue Program to distribute food to vulnerable Canadians that would otherwise go to waste. Food banks, local food organizations and food producers are core partners in delivering this service and have been working with community members to maintain supply.
Within Niagara, the outlook on food security is similar.
Due to COVID-19 and the resulting limitation on essential services, the severity of food insecurity has increased in the Niagara Region. It has made it more difficult for people to access sources of food assistance, due to the need for limited contact and increased limitation on transportation options.
According to statistics released by the Niagara Region, over 10 per cent of Niagara households have issues with food security. This too has been driven by a lack of income as a result of job loss due to the pandemic.
The region currently has an unemployment rate of 7.2 per cent.
“When we look at where we are compared to this time last year, in October of 2019, our unemployment rate was five per cent,” said Adam Durrant, Project Manager for Niagara Workforce Planning Board. “Compared to this time last year, there are 6,200 fewer people working and there are 9,300 fewer people working in a full-time capacity.”
According to Durrant, while the employment landscape remains unpredictable, food security issues will continue to rise.
A number of initiatives and programs have been started by local organizations to help improve food security in the region. Most recently, more than six tonnes of food were provided to individuals in need in Welland over the past few months thanks to a series of food drives and community donors.
Beyond the City of Welland, region-wide programs have been underway over the past few months. Small Scale Farms is a recently established food network wherein families and individuals can purchase community supported agricultural boxes filled with fresh, local produce and meats. These boxes are available for order online and when purchased, are delivered to Niagara residents in need.
The network consists of partnerships between local businesses with local farmers. The goal is to create a more sustainable food system for Niagara.
“The challenge is that we need to support a system that is sustainable and COVID-19 has proven that the grocery store just isn’t sustainable,” said Renee Daley, Founder of Small Scale Farms.
The Food Fed Forward initiative is part of the previously mentioned network. The program aims to get local food to Niagara residents who are in need. Under the initiative, for every box of produce that is bought through Small Scale Farms, the organization will donate a bag of groceries.
Food Fed Forward is available for anyone who needs it; all that is required is to sign up for the program online.
Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold operate a number of food banks across the Niagara Region, which have benefitted from consistent community donations alongside federal funding. As such, these food banks have maintained relatively normal operations throughout the pandemic and look to continue those operations into the upcoming holiday season and throughout the winter.
Brock has also been making improvements to its food security programs for students and has recently partnered with the Brock University Students’ Union (BUSU), the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) and Aramark Canada. This partnership will expand the already established Food First program for students.
Food First provides students in need with a local grocery store gift card, as well as connections to community resources and other programming related to food insecurity.
Having originated as an initiative run by BUSU and the GSA, the expansion of the program to formally partner with the university and its food provider has seen the launch of a new centralized website featuring resources and applications to assist students in need.
“We know there are a number of students who are dealing with food insecurity and in response, we are working with our campus and community partners to provide a coordinated effort to assist students who are in need,” said Anna Lathrop, Vice-Provost, Students, when asked about the initiative. “The Food First program provides resources for advocacy and opportunities for members of the community to donate and contribute to the health and well-being of Brock students.”
In addition to useful resources, the new website includes information on volunteer opportunities and links that will allow community members to donate in support of students. Lathrop encourages students who are able to volunteer with the program or make donations to do so, as the university community strives to combat food insecurity together.
COVID-19 has presented significant challenges to communities across Canada and particularly for Canadians facing food insecurity. It has highlighted the importance of local food organizations, the need to continue to support them and the crucial services Canadians rely upon to be safe and healthy. While there are organizations that are working to fix issues of food security across the country, lasting improvement can only come after involvement from and collaboration with community members.
Interested individuals who desire to engage with the food security organizations in the Niagara Region can do so by visiting www.niagararegion.ca/social-services/food-for-all.aspx. Those who desire to volunteer or participate in Brock’s Food First Program can do so by visiting the program’s website at www.brocku.ca/food-first/.