Putting Good Food on the Table ~ Policy Change is Necessary

With the British Columbia Provincial Election on May 9, 2017 and political campaigns in full swing, I want to talk about a major public health, social justice and human rights issue that lies at the core of a healthy population: Food Security. It is knowing you have enough money to buy nutritious food on a consistent basis.

The Food Insecurity Policy Research Team also known as PROOF based out of the University of Toronto and the BC Provincial Health Services Authority worked together to create a document titled, “Priority health equity indicators for British Columbia: Household Food Insecurity Indicator Report“, published in August 2016.

Information gathered about food security in BC was based on the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) completed in four survey cycles from 2005 to 2011. Limited access to nutrient-dense food is one of 52 ‘health equity’ indicators the BC Provincial Health Services Authority identified.

They concluded that policy does have significant and measurable impact on the overall health of a population and that current policies (which fund charitable organizations but do not directly address food insecurity or the food system) must somehow change.

Is the data provided by PROOF compelling and meaningful enough to the public and those in government to create policy changes? Death by famine lacks drama and so does the topic of having enough healthy food to eat as a way to prevent some chronic illnesses.  

There are currently no direct policies to address food insecurity or hunger in Canada even though the world has been talking about food security as a basic human right for almost 70 years:

  • In 1948, food security was addressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where Food Security & Safety were declared as a human right
  • Again in 1966 at the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Again in 1989 in the Convention of Rights of the Child
  • In 1996 at the World Food Summit in Rome, Rome Declaration on Food Security

In 1998, Canada rolled out its action plan for food security:

Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security is Canada’s response to the World Food Summit (WFS) commitment made by the international community to reduce by half the number of undernourished people no later than the year 2015. … The WFS Plan of Action contains seven commitments, which also form the backbone of this document.

In 2016, household food insecurity continued to rise and reliance on charitable food organizations increased (although such statistics grossly underestimate the extent of the problem because as PROOF’s research has shown only 1 in 4 people who are food insecure actually access food banks). Food banks and other such organizations understand they are bridging the gap that exists between people’s needs and the lack of advocacy and cohesive policy solutions.

Google food insecurity in Canada and you will not find blog posts, articles or social commentaries on this pressing issue, although food insecurity affects everyone in some way. Not many people are getting hot under the collar about the cost to the healthcare system due to increasing need for chronic disease treatment.

Talk to your neighbours, friends, or strangers. Your conversations may reveal what PROOF discovered through regression analysis. Many Canadians who are bringing in household income are struggling to put balanced meals on the table because they have debt, children, high mortgage payments, and high utility bills. Some are caring for elderly parents while others are starting over again later in life. These re-starters are struggling to bridge the gap between now and the age when they can begin to draw a guaranteed basic income. Some are university educated professionals, others are self-employed and some are people on parental leave who don’t get “top ups” to their Employment Insurance benefits.

What are the latest numbers?

One in 6 Canadian children are estimated to be food insecure. In the northern territories of Canada, 2 in 3 children are food insecure (60%). 12.4% of households in Canada don’t have consistent access to nutritious food through regular means. Please note that most data gathered by the Canadian Community Health Survey is about teens and adults.

In the US, 1 in 4 children are estimated to be food insecure. Of the 42.2 million people who are food insecure, 13.1 million are children. 13% of households don’t have consistent access to nutritious food.

For comparison, this graph is reprinted from the original article by Anna Taylor and Rachel Loopstra written for The Food Foundation titled “Too Poor To Eat: Food Insecurity in the UK”.  An estimated 8.4 million people experience household insecurity on a daily basis in the UK.food-insecurity-data-fixedThe European countries with the lowest levels of food insecurity were Sweden (3.1%), Germany (4.3%) and Denmark (4.9%). The highest rates were measured in Lithuania (19.6%), Romania (18.9%) and Greece (17.2%).

PROOF gathered important information and data to guide discussions to address food insecurity. The policies of countries with the lowest food insecurity rates can serve as examples and guides for our policy makers.  When debating the latest changes to the Canadian Food Guide, several politicians turned to Brazil’s latest Food Guidelines as an example of progressive change Canada should adopt.

It seems that we are still far from discussing policy options regarding food security. But there is no time like now to increase public awareness, help people understand the significant implications of this public health issue and to demand specific policies to reverse rising food insecurity trends.

What policy changes?

We can’t address food insecurity without looking at the entire food, economic or social system. My sense is that improving fair and equitable access to food is a complex issue that needs a complete shift in our current way of thinking and the collaboration of many.

Here are some suggestions that I’ve been reading and thinking about:

  1. Policies must invest in health, specifically, disease prevention (e.g., decide on a healthy, sustainable diet)
  2. Policy change that champions sustainable, locally produced food, including increased incentives for local farmers and for markets where fresh, healthful food is available, may increase community food security.
  3. Policies that support increased financial support/benefits to vulnerable populations may improve access to healthful food.
  4. Policies that support community gardening, home gardening, and urban farming are other ways in which sustainably grown, local food can be used to improve community food security and to increase participant intake of fruits and vegetables.
  5.  Create incentives to allow citizens to buy seeds and edible plants, further increasing the potential for urban agriculture and home gardening to help alleviate food insecurity.

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