Some of our neighbours are hungry. Others are constantly deciding between utilities or food. That this should happen in Canada — a major food producer for the world — should be reprehensible to us.
Food insecurity is usually defined as “the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.” And we are – officially, at least – collectively against it. We have agreed at the United Nations that food is a basic human right and that right protects every human from hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity.
“All residents [should] have knowledge of and access to nutritious, affordable and safe food” is not taken from some crunchy manifesto but rather from the Food Charter on the City of Kawartha Lakes website. That everyone deserves access to healthy food should be a no-brainer.
In the City of Kawartha Lakes, we are not plagued by physical access to food barriers like Canadians are in northern and isolated communities. Aisha Malik is a registered dietitian from the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit (HKPRDHU) and chair of the food security working group of the Kawartha Lakes Food Coalition. She defines food insecurity as “not having enough food or worrying there’s not enough to eat because of financial constraints.”
Malik reports that 13.5 per cent of residents of the HKPRDU catchment area — which includes all of the City of Kawartha Lakes – are food insecure which is higher than the province-wide rate of 11.9 per cent. Put more bluntly: almost 10,000 of our neighbours don’t have enough food to eat, have to make difficult decisions between food and other bills, or worry about how the next load of groceries is going to be paid for.
Many who work at improving food security use a continuum developed by BC-based dietician and food advocate Laura Kalina. She advocates examining and improving the food security system at three levels: short term relief, capacity-building strategies and system redesign strategies.
Like many places in the country, we are pretty good at short term/emergency food distribution in Kawartha Lakes. The Kawartha Lakes Food Source, a food distribution centre, supplies nine member food banks, 30 agencies and 21 local schools. KLFS recently marked its 15th anniversary in our City. While it’s important to recognize the tens of thousands of volunteer hours and countless donations of money by individuals and local businesses, this milestone is nothing to celebrate.
The numbers are staggering: 60 bags and 1,200 cartons of milk a week, $600 a week in fresh fruit and 40 dozen eggs a week. In 2017 KLFS fed 5,500 people, collected or purchased over 199,000 pounds of food using the energies of 150 volunteers who contributed 3,695 hours of their time. All of this is done with no operating funding of any kind from any level of government.
Those accomplishments are part of the problem however. Food banks were supposed to be a temporary measure to a particularly nasty recession in the 1980s; now, they are institutionalized into one of the ways in which we think we are dealing with wealth distribution. We have allowed governments to download one of our most basic human rights to charity. As best-selling author and President of Community Food Centres of Canada, Nick Saul, told The Lindsay Advocate, “food banks should never think they are the solution; food won’t solve this problem.”
We have entrenched a certain lack of dignity in how we feed our neighbours. Because of the charity model, we proceed on the basis that ‘any food is good food.’ We accept food donations from large corporations that get tax write-offs and avoid tipping fees. While every effort is made to ensure the food is edible by the well-intentioned volunteers and staff along this food chain, at the end of the day it’s about handing a box of food that was chosen by someone else and that may or may not be appropriate for the family receiving it – all done in a way that is fundamentally different from how most of us are lucky enough to get food.
KLFS and its member agencies surveyed food bank users this year and volunteers are taking sensitivity courses which are commendable efforts, but ultimately we have a process that further separates and divides us. As Andrea Curtis, author of Eat this! How Fast Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk (and how to fight back) told the Advocate, “when we prioritize ensuring everyone has access to good food, so much can begin to change. Instead of dividing us, food has the power to bring us together.”
There are excellent local efforts to improve the quality of food and increase the capacity of our food system: we have Plant a Row Grow a Row (which gets neighbours to grow fresh food for neighbours), community and open gardens, community kitchens and there are food skill and gardening education programs. Recently KLFA purchased four ‘tower gardens’ which according to KLFS General Manager and KLFC Chair Heather Kirby, “will provide fresh produce all year long. This is an exciting new way that we are able to help those who do not have enough.”
All of this work is done by so many in our community but it doesn’t address the basic issue: food insecurity can only be changed by addressing income insecurity. There are some who bring out the laziness trope here, thinking people should just work more and harder or just get a job. Besides being mean-spirited, it is factually wrong. Ontario statistics reveal that 57.5 per cent of food insecure families have a family member with a job. Only 20.6 per cent of KLFS clients receive social assistance, the rest are on disability, are unemployed or working.
That is why the KLFC Food Security Working Group will work on a poverty reduction awareness campaign for both the upcoming provincial and municipal elections.
“The focus will be on income based solutions — continue the Basic Income Guarantee, increase social assistance rates, and increase affordable housing,” says Kirby.
“The idea is to start the hard work of actually changing the system that leads to food insecurity.”
Given that 40 per cent of food bank clients are actually children, perhaps we can roll up our sleeves and decide to change a system that leaves too many of our neighbours struggling with the most basic of needs: healthy, nutritious food.