Question municipal election candidates about local food insecurity

Food insecurity in Guelph and Wellington County, as in other municipalities, is masked by the illusion of food abundance.

Many seem unaware that people in our community can’t afford the cost of food on a regular basis. Recent statistics show 16 per cent of Guelph residents experience some level of food insecurity.

While many people who access emergency food services are receiving social assistance, the majority of people in Canada who are food insecure have employment income (62 per cent). But with the rise in unstable employment, the income many of these workers receive is simply not enough to pay for basic needs, including food.

Recent research suggests only 25 per cent of food-insecure Canadians access emergency food services, such as food banks or meal programs. This is not surprising, considering the number of barriers identified by those accessing emergency food services in Guelph and Wellington, including stigma and transportation.

The link between food insecurity and poor health outcomes has been well documented. People who live in food insecure homes are more likely to experience poorer overall health, including major depression and distress, higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and food allergies than those who are properly fed. People who live in poverty die 20 years younger than those with adequate income, according to a recent McMaster University study.

In Guelph and Wellington, residents who receive Ontario Works (3,277 people), Ontario Disability Support Program payments (5,021 people), or who are working in low-wage or precarious jobs often face the ongoing worry of where to get the next meal. This results in a terrifying cycle of insecurity and fear each month.

Community Voices member and Advance your Voice speaker, Tina Brophey, notes: “It’s not even the middle of the month. I paid my rent, got my bus pass, paid my phone bill and bought some groceries on the first of the month. I have 20 days until I get another assistance cheque. I will need to access food supports, if I want to eat on all of those 20 days.

“I won’t be alone. I will eat surrounded by men, women and children at the Drop In Centre or the church. I will visit the food bank, pantries and Hope House, and eat with a variety of people and meet volunteers who will help with a smile.”

Ultimately, food insecurity is rooted in poverty. An average family of four spends approximately 13 per cent of its income on healthy food, compared to 42 per cent for a similar family living on Ontario Works. Many households must make the difficult choice between buying healthy food or paying rent and utilities, and most choose to stay housed.

“It isn’t an emergency that makes people use food cupboards and meals,” Brophey says. “It’s a day-to-day reality that there isn’t enough in the envelope that arrives at the top of the month. Whether that envelope is from Ontario Works, Ontario Disability Support or from a low-paying job, it just isn’t enough.”

To effectively address the root issue, action needs to be taken at all levels of government, including policies that support adequate incomes. Municipal governments have an important role to play by advocating and amplifying the voice for change on federal and provincial income-related policies.

In the meantime, municipalities can champion innovative local programs within the community. Municipalities can also provide ongoing financial and resource support to local food initiatives that often operate on a shoestring.

While the work of the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination focuses on addressing the root causes of poverty, local initiatives like the Garden Fresh Box and the North End Market are examples of innovative ways people living in poverty are able to access healthy fruits and vegetables.

Community food centres seek to address both immediate effects and root causes of food insecurity. The Canadian Food Centre program is an example of an innovative program that a municipality can support. Community food centres have been set up as a welcoming space where people come together to grow, cook, share and advocate for healthy food. Food centres provide people with emergency access to high-quality food in a dignified setting that does not compromise self-worth.

In Guelph, the Seed Community Food Hub Committee has embraced this vision and has been working since 2013 to establish a community food centre locally.

For those of us who do not face the daily worry of accessing healthy and affordable food, it is easy to ignore food insecurity. We see abundance at every turn: in grocery stores, on the television, in our refrigerators and at restaurants. It is time for us to realize this illusion is not the reality for one sixth of the people who live in our community.

As the municipal election approaches, give food, and food insecurity, some thought. Ask your local candidates what they plan to do to address poverty and food insecurity. What will they do to address issues of income insecurity and growing income inequality? What local programs and advocacy initiatives will they support once elected?

– Andrew Seagram is a steering committee member with the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination.

This article originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury on October 11, 2014.

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