Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the Director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious. One of the key issues facing the future is this issue of poverty and food insecurity, of people getting access to the food that they need for a healthy and nutritious diet. Today, I'm joined by Madeleine Arseneau, one of our University of Guelph's top students to discuss this issue.
Thanks, Evan. I'm excited to dive deeper into this topic and talk to experts. Today we're going to discuss food access and inequality in Canada. Living in a developed country, we often assume there are little to no challenges when it comes to things like water, food and shelter. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have seen a steady increase in hunger and obesity over the years. In fact, 4 million people in Canada are considered moderately or severely food insecure. In this episode, we're going to hear from experts from Food Secure Canada, Maple Leaf Center for Action on Food Security, and Community Food Centres Canada. Let's first go chat with Danie Martin. Thanks for being here today, Danie. Can you explain what got you into this role, and a little bit more about what Food Secure Canada does?
I always thought that food is such an interesting aspect to work on, because actually, it involves everybody. And it brings people together. Food Secure Canada is a national and bilingual network of organizations and individuals that are working together, trying to advance food security and food sovereignty. So we're working to make our food system more healthy, more just, and more sustainable. And our work is mainly focused on federal advocacy and bringing people together and sharing information.
That's great, and can you give us a definition of food access?
For me food access is really being able to get appropriate quality and amount of food for yourself and for your family. So if you don't have food access, it actually means your food insecure. So it comes back to food insecurity. And really, it's, for me it's really a question of income that makes it difficult to put food on the table. And this doesn't mean that it's only people who don't have jobs. Actually 60% of food insecure households have jobs. For some people, it might be not accessing the most healthy or appropriate food for them, for other that might be skipping one or more meals so that their children can eat. The other thing also about food access or food insecurity. It's also inequality. The recent research showed that Black households are actually twice as likely to experience food insecurity in Canada. And if we look at Inuit, and Indigenous populations, it's even higher.
And I think you talked about kind of the colonialism behind a lot of our policies, and what are some of the things you think the government needs to do with regards to food access and injustice to help alleviate some of these challenges?
One example that that just happened this summer is the federal government released the Food Policy for Canada. And in this food policy, there are specific references to food security. And this was really game changing in terms of the, in terms of a food policy, because it was prioritizing community resilience, it was prioritizing connection amongst food actors, health, sustainability, and also self-determined Indigenous food systems. So it's, it was thinking about all these things together on the system. And together also, if you think about all of them, we can do a difference in terms of food access, and food insecurity, and also food injustice.
So it really seems like what you're talking about, and correct me if I'm wrong, but seems to be that we need to move beyond this model of those that are food insecure will need to rely on charity. But instead, we need to look at higher level and look at the systemic problems and policies.
Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. We're trying to go at the root of the causes of what creates food insecurity or food inequality. We're trying to go really beyond and work with different actors, because a system means that everything is really connected together. It's not only one thing, it's not like three things, it's everything together that will create these issues.
Yeah, definitely. And as you know, a lot of these topics are quite complex, like you just said, and they're often quite negative. What are some of the positive things you've seen come out of this current food movement?
The really positive thing that I'm working on that we saw was the creation of a National School Food Program. This year, we've been especially a momentum for school food that really like, came, came up, People are getting more and more involved, there's a lot of talk about this in the media, and even schools are getting involved in the project. For example like creating salad bars, and youth being involved in getting the word out. That healthy food for all everyday is really important. So this is a project that, that I'm working on with the Coalition for Healthy School Food, and they're advocating for a national school food program since a long time. And now it's really actually been in the, it was in the last federal budget. So we're, this is really giving us hope. And it was really positive for us to see that our work is actually having an effect. And eventually, we will see school food programming in Canada for all children.
Thank you so much for your time with us today, Danie. It's been great.
Let's now go and chat with Sarah Stern. Sarah is with the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security. Thanks for coming on today. Sarah,
Happy to be here. Thank you, Maddy .
So can you start explaining a little bit more about who you are and what you do?
I lead the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security, which is a registered charity. What my job is in that company is to lead the charity and to lead our work around increasing access to food, access to good food for people across Canada. In Canada, often where you see hunger, you also see obesity. And that's because in Canada, most people are going to the store to purchase their food. And in many cases, people aren't able to buy the good healthy foods and the fresh produce that we would often consider to be part of a good diet. And they're purchasing a variety of other things that lead to obesity. That's why you see hunger and obesity together in Canada.
Yeah, definitely. And would you say that food access itself is the issue? Or do you think there's underlying issues?
So I think there's a little bit of both, I think, in many cases, and we find that healthy foods are sometimes more expensive. In some cases, if you live in Toronto, or you live in Guelph, or you live in a major urban center that has grocery stores, it's the cost of, the cost of good healthy food is higher than the cost of other food, which is what people are purchasing. And other places in Canada that are that are more rural or more remote, you're limited to what's in the store. And in some of those cases. So if you live on a reserve, or if you live in Canada's far north, the availability of good fresh food is very low, you're limited to what you're able to purchase, or get from the land.
Right. So a lot of it seems to be based on where you are and what you have access to. But also kind of related to finances and the price of food.
For sure, for sure, for sure, and I think it's always been a challenge in the society that we live in. We've moved away from an era of trading to a cash society. And so you are living in poverty, it can be very difficult to purchase good food. There are many other things that someone needs to pay for before they pay for food, such as a roof over their head.
Right. So it's kind of about prioritizing what you can and at the end of the month, you might not have enough for food after finish paying the bills and everything. Something that a lot of people have kind of chatted about is how this isn't just an issue of charity and donations. It's a bigger issue. And we need to kind of get at the root causes of it if we want to address it properly.
Yeah, you know, when we look at it, we say that in Canada, we really as a Canadian population, we like to think of ourselves as caring, compassionate, inclusive, yet somehow we've let 4 million people suffer with food insecurity.
So it's really, it's un-Canadian. And it goes against our values. And we need to create change.
Yeah, definitely. And what are some things that you think the government can do? And what role does the government play in alleviating these challenges?
I think that the government has a big role to play in alleviating these challenges. So we've got this great Poverty Reduction Strategy. It's talked about looking at food insecurity as one of the indicators that it will consider, but it hasn't set any targets around the reduction of food insecurity. It would be great to see the government set targets, so the target, it's something you're going to work towards. But more needs to be done so the the working population who don't have children or who are single, because those are the people who are being left behind right now. Because there's no current government program, which is assisting those people.
And then a final question is what can listeners do to take action themselves?
I would encourage them to take a look around their community and see what they can do to create positive change. So whether it's going out and volunteering with a local charity, or helping with a local food program within the school, and I think just having that increased awareness of what's going on around them is really important.
Yeah, definitely. I think those are some great goals and I think they're things that students can do and start thinking about.
I'm very excited to introduce to you Sasha McNichol. Sasha is a Policy Manager for Canada. Thank you so much for being here today, Sasha.
Thanks for having me.
So can you start by explaining a little bit more about who you are and what Community Food Centres Canada does?
Community Food Centres Canada is a national organization that builds community food centers across the country. So these are community centers that focus on healthy food programming. So that can be stuff like community meals, community gardens, community kitchens, and we facilitate an indigenous network that does knowledge sharing, and support each other in, in their food work.
Wow, so it sounds like you guys are doing a lot. So then can you just briefly discuss in your own words, what food access, what it looks like to you in your everyday work?
We tend to put it, it really impacts people's lives in so many ways beyond what you would think, right? So it, it impacts people's physical health. It can cause or exacerbate chronic health problems like diabetes. And in the worst case, when people are skipping meals or not eating for entire days, it actually costs our healthcare system more than double what it costs to feed people who are able to eat healthy food on a consistent basis. And then sometimes it's in ways that you wouldn't think of like people can't take their prescription medications, because they don't have food to take them with. It impacts people's mental health, it can cause depression, anxiety, mood disorders. And you know, it makes people feel really lonely and socially isolated, you know, so much of being social in our society revolves around food, you know, you go for coffee, or dinner or drinks. And when you can't afford to do that you can't participate. So, you know, we heard from parents who weren't able to send their kids to birthday parties, because they didn't have money for gifts, or weren't able to throw their kids birthday parties because they couldn't afford a cake or the the food to feed all of the guests. And so there's, you know, this is a big problem. And there's kind of mounting evidence that shows that social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking.
Yeah, and I think that point you touched on a couple times of social isolation is a really key point. Because it does affect your mental and physical health, it goes beyond just having food on your plate for dinner.
It's something that I think we need to see government support for, if we want to really address this problem at its root. The government can do a lot to kind of level the playing field, these problems are systemic. And so it's not, it's not about charity, it's about systemic change, and really government is the best place to address those systemic issues.
And could you if you had to pick three words, or three topics that were to describe what causes food inequality, or food access? What would you say?
That's a great question. You know, one thing is an increasingly precarious labour market where people are working jobs that don't have the same kinds of benefits or have low, low wages. Or where people can't count on a certain number of hours. You know, another problem is that people are increasingly living alone. So actually, people who live alone are the most common kind of household in Canada. And that means that people with one income are trying to shoulder the cost of a whole household, right? You don't get to split your rent, with other people, for example. And so it's, it's much less affordable. And then, you know, there's also the the increased cost of living. Those are, those are a few reasons, but there's definitely a lot more. You know, colonialism is a really big, really big problem, for example, and is at the root of a lot of the increased rates of food insecurity in Indigenous communities, for example.
Are there any positive outcomes, you've seen?
Yeah, I think, you know, at the grassroots. We've certainly seen people in community food centres and other organizations that we support kind of coming together and getting political, you know, talking about the issues that impact their lives. And that's what we need is for people to become politicized, right. So, like a lot of the listeners here are probably too young to vote, but they can still talk to their members of parliament. They can talk to their parents, they can talk to teachers, and, and let them know that they want a fairer society that takes care of people.
Thanks, Sasha. It was great chatting with you. Let's head back and chat with Evan. What are your thoughts on a school food program in Canada?
I was pretty pleased with the federal government, about this time last year, so that would be spring of 2019, announced that they were investigating a school nutrition program as part of the Food Policy for Canada. Now, there were no specific funding commitments directed at that, so how far we get with that particular initiative is, remains to be seen, but that's a promising sign. But lots of people think and I think there's pretty good evidence to say that, that school nutrition programs, linked with school literacy programs so not just giving out food or providing food at, in the context of school, but also teaching kids about how to prepare and buy food, and nutrition and whatnot. Those are very effective ways of addressing food insecurity in the long term.
Do you have any suggestions for how youth interested in helping to adjust this problem, whether it's through policy or specific action items, how they can help?
Well, I mean, I think that youth speak with a moral authority that older people don't have. And so I think that at the moment, there is a moral power to a youth movement, that other sectors of society, other demographics, maybe don't, can't marshal or can't harness quite as effectively. And so having a coherent youth movement, calling for a school lunch program, or school nutrition program, and a school literacy program, might have far more moral power to it, and command far more attention than if a bunch of professors ask for the same thing.
Right, yeah, that makes sense to have kind of they have this demographic right now, or they're able to push different messages on different platforms even that we might not have as an older generation.
Yeah, I think that's right. I don't think this is an either/or, I think that, for instance, I think that the the Greta playbook seems to be taking very careful advice from experts in the field, scientists and whatnot, in that case it's climate change, and then using the moral power of the youth platform to amplify the scientific and expert voices seems to be what's happening with that. And maybe that's the that's, that's sort of a playbook that could be utilized where a pan-Canadian youth movement around school lunches could form that was itself informed by expert opinion and scientific evidence.
Yeah, and that's something that interested students could maybe even just start small scale in their school and then work with teachers to see how they could connect at a larger scale with university researchers and policymakers and see how they could kind of all start working together.
I couldn't agree with you more.
Thanks so much, Evan, and thanks again to Danny, Sarah and Sasha for taking the time to chat with me. I hope this episode has given you some ideas and how you can take action and help build a more just and secure food system. Remember that it all starts with a conversation.
You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security, or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at feeding9billion.com. This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair program.