Homeless Hub Podcast [Ep 1]: Putting Food Insecurity on the Table

It’s the debut of the Homeless Hub Podcast! Our first episode sees us speaking with Dr. Valerie Tarasuk of the University of Toronto about food insecurity, food banks, and what needs to be done to ensure all Canadians know where their next meal is coming from, and that they can afford it.


Interviewer: Hello and welcome to the first ever Homeless Hub podcast. Through this podcast we’re going to bring you stories, interviews, and research to help you better understand poverty and homelessness in Canada. Where policy is going and what you can do, hopefully, to make an impact in your community. Today we are going to talk about food insecurity and it’s an issue that takes on a particular relevance during the winter holiday months. There’s a lot of chatter about food drives and food banks and giving to the less fortunate but we don’t hear nearly enough about why people go hungry around the holidays or why people go hungry at all. And why this whole issue of food insecurity still exists in today’s modern, multicultural and affluent Canada. To explore this issue of food insecurity we are going to be talking to Dr. Valerie Tarasuk of the University of Toronto, one of the foremost experts on food insecurity in Canada. Alongside Naomi Dachner and Andy Mitchell, Dr. Tarasuk recently released Household Food Insecurity 2011, a by the numbers report that breaks down food insecurity in Canada, and I don’t think I have to tell you that it’s required reading for anybody interested in hunger and poverty in Canada. And certainly you’ll hear more about that report in our interview, which you’re about to hear right now on the Homeless Hub podcast.

[soft jazz music]

INT: Thank you for joining me Dr. Tarasuk. Let’s start by talking about food banks. Recently, Food Banks Canada released their Hunger Count report for 2013 and in that report they found in March of this year over 833 000 individuals were helped by Canada’s food banks. By contrast, your report on food insecurity in 2011 found over 3.9 million Canadians were food insecure. Now I know there’s a big difference in dates between those two reports, but certainly some connection can be made between the two of them. What I want to know from you is why is there such a gap between these numbers?

Dr. Valerie Tarasuk: Well, it’s a really good question and I’m glad you’re drawing attention to it. The disconnect simply reflects the fact that most people who are struggling to put food on the table don’t use food banks. That’s the bottom line. When we look at the demographic characteristics of whose food insecure in Canada and compare our demographics to the demographics in those Food Bank Canada reports you can see that they’re serving a particular subset of the broader population of those who are food insecure. But, that’s nowhere near the majority. I mean the difference is like four and a half or five times.

INT: So why is it then that food banks, this program that we have that is specifically there to make sure that people who are hungry have access to food, why is it that Canadians who are food insecure aren’t all taking advantage of that program?

VT: I mean, the only people, I think, who think these things are a one-to-one match with the problem are people on the outside of the problem. [Laugh] They’re not uniformly available or accessible, but also food banks are fundamentally a culturally inappropriate response to this problem. In an affluent society like our people aren’t comfortable seeking charity. To go to a place where you have to “out” your poverty and your extreme deprivation to total strangers, it’s just not something that I think a lot of people are prepared to do. They don’t identify with the solution, or not the solution, it’s not the solution. They don’t identify with that response. It may not be available to them. It’s one of the differences; one of the most salient differences in the demographics is that most of the people who are served at food banks are on social assistance. I think that reflects a lot of things, it says a lot about our social assistance programs, but also about the design of food banks and their ability to, or their attempts to reach out to people on social assistance. But when you look at the breakdown of people who are food insecure in Canada actually the majority of those people aren’t on social assistance, they’re in the workforce. When we interviewed people who are not using food banks but are food insecure, you know, some of what we get back is well, you know, “I’m working, I don’t have time” or “The food bank in my neighbourhood doesn’t serve people who work. They only serve people on welfare” or “I can’t get there” or somebody else has got children at home and they’ve got childcare responsibilities. You know, we did a look at the hours of operation for food assistance programs in five cities in Canada, for food banks in five cities, and I think over half of them were only open for something like 10 hours a week, or less. So it’s not like these are grocery stores where there’s an ad lib access, you know. I’ve got a Loblaw store under my house that’s open 7 days a week and it’s open until midnight every day, but food banks wouldn’t be doing anything near like that. They’re volunteer run and they’re just, you know, they’re not designed to manage this problem.

INT: So food banks then, they have an imperfect model that doesn’t reach everyone who could possibly need that. What then is the way that you fix food banks? Is it government regulation? Is it intervention? What’s the best way to fix food banks?

VT: No, no, the other finding that we have, and other people who have looked at this question have also got, is that it’s not as if going to a food bank stops somebody from being food insecure or from even going hungry. We have no evidence to support that. We did a study a few years ago looking at 500 families in low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto and most of those families were food insecure. Eight out of ten were reported in the last twelve months to struggle with food and 28% were severely food insecure. Meaning that there were indications that people were actually not eating when they needed to because they didn’t have food or money for food. But, less than a quarter of those families had ever used a food bank. Only something like 4% reported doing it on a monthly basis. And when we looked at the, so we asked questions about the reasons why people didn’t use food banks, and that’s where we learned things about, you know, they just didn’t identify with that as a response, they weren’t that desperate, it wasn’t accessible. You know those kinds of things, but when we looked at the people who did use food banks, and we had a lot of data on these households. What we could say is they were more likely to be severely food insecure which means, from our vantage point at least, that the act of using a food bank was an act of desperation and you only do it when you absolutely had to. But they were severely food insecure; there was nothing to say that once they used a food bank they got better. They continued to be struggling in a very desperate way to put food on the table. So they sought out food assistance, food charity, at that point, or at some point in that process, for them as a way to try to mitigate their struggle, but it was one of multiple strategies that people employed in those situations. And we had no evidence to suggest that getting help from a food bank solved their problems, not at all. We can see it as a marker of desperation, but it doesn’t reverse the story, so when you’re asking, “what’s the solution?” Well the solution isn’t food banks, and it isn’t making more food banks or bigger food banks, or better food banks, I mean people are trying to do that, but you know we’ve got thirty years of history of trying to do that and it doesn’t actually fix this problem. If it did, we wouldn’t be able to get these numbers like 3.9 million in 2011, 4 million in 2012. Those numbers wouldn’t exist.

[Soft Jazz]

INT: Let’s move onto the topic of food insecurity. We’ve talked a bit about your report on Food Insecurity in Canada in 2011, but what’s the state of food insecurity today?

VT: From what we can tell things have gotten a bit worse. In January we will release a report on 2012’s data. And in 2011 we reported 3.9 million, in 2012 we’re reporting 4 million, so the numbers are creeping upward. And we’ve seen an entrenchment of the patterns we’ve reported in 2011 with this high vulnerability of people on social assistance. Seniors, being in general protected from the problem, a much lower rate of food insecurity among seniors than among other Canadians and this big glut of people in the workforce that are still not able to put food on the table. So the story is not a positive one and that we’ve got this kind of, if anything things are static or things are getting a little bit worse.

INT: You mentioned that Canada’s seniors are insulated from this issue of food insecurity. Why is that?

VT: I think that is about the kinds of policies we have in place for seniors. When someone turns 65 they’re eligible for an old age pension, there’s a guaranteed income supplement, they have supplementary drug coverage, they also enjoy all kinds of discounts that are offered to them through the private sector, so they have discounted transit fares, there are seniors’ days at many retail establishments. There are many, many benefits, you know, public and private, for people who are seniors. It’s beautiful and what it effectively does is create an income floor for seniors, but with a whole lot of other in-kind benefits along side. So what we can see is that seniors have less than half the probability of food insecurity as working aged adults do. That’s about the fact that we take good care of seniors. If someone is a single person on social assistance in Ontario, so let’s say we’ve got a single person on welfare. When they turn 65, assuming that they live long enough to turn 65, at this point in time their income will literally double just because they turned 65. Not to mention the fact that their costs of living will diminish because they have access to other sorts of subsidies like subsidized transit and other sorts of benefits from the private sector. So we dramatically change the costs of living and the income for low income people who become seniors. So, and what we can see is that that complex network of social policy and private sector participation is effective. Now we haven’t reduced food insecurity for seniors to zero and we need to take a look to see how come we haven’t, who is it that’s falling through the cracks, but it has been dramatically, dramatically reduced.

INT: And in keeping with this idea of policies that address food insecurity, one area that we haven’t seen much success in Canada has been in the north, particularly in Nunavut. What I want to know from you is just what works, what doesn’t work, and just how are we doing in terms of addressing food insecurity in Canada’s north?

VT: What I can tell you is that in 2012, so in 2011, Nunavut stood out as having a rate of food insecurity of what, more than, let me just pick up my data set here. Nunavut stood out as having a rate of food insecurity that was 36.4% of prevalence of household food insecurity in 2011. In Nunavut and in 2012 that has risen to 45% so that’s terrible. We also see a very worrisome rise in the North West Territories, it’s nowhere near as high, but still the rate has gone up. This is a very serious problem. I mean everybody in Canada should be concerned about what’s happening up there. There’s no way that the children in Nunavut could be getting the opportunities to, you know, grow into healthy, productive adults if they’re living in these conditions now. So it’s a very serious problem I mean you asked me what was being done, I mean I’ve heard stories of, you know, there being some kind of food security initiative in Nunavut, I mean I’ve probably heard that story a couple of years ago. If anything was being done that was very effective there was no way we would have seen such a marked increase in food insecurity between 2011 and 2012 so I would say in Nunavut we have a national crisis on our hands and it has to be federal intervention that makes a difference up there, but it’s a very, very serious problem.

INT: Let’s talk about this idea of intervention for just a moment. Is there anywhere in Canada, is there any government that’s getting it right? Is there somebody who should be seen as the shining example by which other governments in Canada can learn and better react to food insecurity?

VT: The interesting story, from the perspective of poverty reduction, is Newfoundland and Labrador. They were one of the first provinces to launch a poverty reduction strategy. They did so in 2006 and it was a very aggressive strategy. It targeted not just the prevalence of poverty in Newfoundland and Labrador, but also the depth of poverty and that’s really, really critical to tackling food insecurity because you can change, you know, the percentage of, I don’t know, families with children living below some income threshold, some arbitrary income threshold. You can make small changes there, and we can see that in Ontario with their Ontario Child Benefit, but it doesn’t, often, it doesn’t translate into a change in food insecurity rates because the amount of money that’s been handed out and even the recipients of it, it doesn’t necessarily get at the depth of the problem. The changes that are made for people that are really, really poor, the increments in their income just isn’t enough to turn things around.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, when they introduced their poverty reduction strategy one of the things they did was some very, very radical reforms with respect to social assistance. They raised rates, so Newfoundland went from one of the lower rates to one of the highest, I think the highest, in Canada and they also indexed their social assistance rates to inflation which is HUGE. Very few provinces have indexation of welfare rates and food prices have risen steadily over the last few years. Indexation is a major, major component.

But the other things Newfoundland and Labrador did. They altered the asset limits so when someone went on social assistance they didn’t have to liquidate so much of their assets in order to be declared eligible. And they enabled if people on social assistance garnered employment, they enabled them to keep more money from work so they were able to realize more benefits from even short term or part time work while on social assistance. So it was a very well thought out strategy with multi-  you know and I’m just describing the part of the strategy that related to people on social assistance, but there were multiple components to it that looked at assets and the interface between social assistance and employment but also looked at the benefit levels overall and tied them to inflation. What we saw then, between 2007 and 2011, was a marked drop in, well particularly – actually between 2007 and 2009-10, a marked drop in food insecurity rates in Newfoundland and Labrador. When we dug more deeply you could see a dramatic decline in the vulnerability of people on social assistance in that province compared to others and it speaks volumes about the effect of what they did. I mean, but it also provides, just like the senior story, I mean it provides an example of the fact that this problem really is about social policy and it’s sensitive to changes in social policy. We can make it better or we can make it worse depending on what happens from the perspective of income support programs for people at the bottom end of the economic spectrum and Newfoundland and Labrador is a beautiful story of how that worked. Now, sadly, Newfoundland and Labrador’s numbers started to creep up in 2012 and I don’t know what that’s about. It isn’t about social assistance recipients because they continued to be markedly less vulnerable then social assistance recipients in the other provinces, but perhaps it relates to employment conditions in Newfoundland in this last period.

[soft jazz music]

INT: Of course food insecurity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It influences, and is itself influenced by, other social issues. So how does food insecurity factor into issues like homelessness or mental health?

VT: To start with the housing piece, these two problems are very, very intertwined. We don’t even have to get to something as extreme as people being at risk of being homeless, but what we found in our research is that when households are struggling to put food on the table chances are that they are also struggling to pay bills. So people are robbing Peter to pay Paul, that’s the line we hear over and over again. So forfeiting one expenditure as a way to free up money for something else. Sometimes they’re forfeiting food to free up money to pay bills or rent. Sometimes they’re forfeiting bill payments as a way to free up a bit of money for food, so it’s a very precarious existence. In the course of our research with those 500 families we absolutely found families that were facing eviction, but also families living in very crowded conditions and in housing that required major repairs. You know, in conditions that they wouldn’t choose to be in, but part of trying to manage on a low income is often engaging in chronic compromises around things like health and quality as a way to minimize expenditure on housing to free up as much as you possibly can of your scarce resources for food. It’s part of why that intersection of food insecurity with housing insecurity and broader manifestations of financial insecurity, that’s part of why we’re never going to solve problems of food insecurity with food charity. That only focusing on the food dimension of a situation that is characterized by extreme material deprivation means that you’re not being attentive to these other components like the housing circumstances or the recreation or the personal hygiene or the healthcare. I mean people in those circumstances  are also not doing the kinds of healthy lifestyle behaviours that we’d want them to do to, that all of us are being encouraged to do, as a way to ward off chronic disease risk.

So that’s one piece, I want to talk briefly about the health story as well. One of the things that we’ve had an abundance of data to work with to do is to look at the relationship between food insecurity and health. The fact that household food insecurity is monitored in Canada on this thing called the Canadian Community Health Survey means that we get always those measures in tandem with an abundance of measures of people’s health and what we can see is an extraordinary intersection between food insecurity and poor health. So when we look at adults in households characterized as food insecure, they are way more likely than other adults in the country to report a whole range of chronic physical and mental health problems. All kinds of things, I mean things like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, but also things like back problems, arthritis, asthma, migraines. The strongest intersection is with mental illness and we also see a relationship between the severity of food insecurity and the probability of reporting all these conditions. So that the more severe the household circumstance, the greater the likelihood that an adult will report being diagnosed with multiple chronic conditions, and is very likely that as those situations get severe adults will report mental health problems as well as physical health problems. What does it mean in terms of a chicken and an egg? Well it’s hard to pull it apart. That, for sure to be in a circumstance of trying to manage with a very constrained income can’t do anybody’s health any good, so from a whole bunch of dimensions. Both from the stress perspective but also the need to allocate scarce resources for things other than a healthy diet or medication or whatever a person needs to purchase to maintain their health, so it’s for sure that food insecurity has to be deleterious to health and there’s some very good data as to suggest that that’s true for Canadian children as well. But the other side of it is that, I think, the intersection of health and food insecurity suggests that when we find people with meager incomes, those who are most likely to plummet into these very terrible conditions of food insecurity, they’re people who are also struggling with chronic illness. That to be managing on a very low income is hard, right. You have to be very resourceful, it’s very hard work. Somebody who is, at the same time trying to manage a chronic illness or multiple chronic illnesses, has too many things to try to figure out and they just may not physically or mentally be able to be as resourceful as they need to be to survive with a low income. Also, chances are, their costs are higher. They may incur costs for medications that are essential for them, but they may also incur extra costs because of mobility issues, because of the need to try to practice a special diet as a way to manage their diabetes or whatever. So it’s heartbreaking to see this intersection between food insecurity and health because it suggests that not only are we not respecting people’s right to food, in the way that we’ve designed our social programs, but we’re not taking very good care of low income Canadians with chronic health problems.

INT: Considering the links that you just established between food insecurity, and homelessness, and mental health issues. It’s pretty clear to me that we need policies in a variety of areas to change if we’re going to be addressing food insecurity in all of its causes, but it’s not really as simple as that is it? We don’t have a national housing strategy. We don’t have a national poverty strategy. So what are your thoughts on the commitment that you’re seeing from government to properly address food insecurity?

VT: Well, I think it’s unfortunate. I mean we need better leadership, right. We can’t, if you think about the food banks story, I mean, we’ve got an awful lot of Canadians who are doing things. Like the support for that CBC Songs of the Season Campaign is a beautiful example. We’ve got a whole lot of people in Canada who are reaching into their own pockets to try to do what they can, what they can figure out to do, to try to make sure that people don’t go hungry in their midst. When you look at the ways that we have this huge food charity system in place in Canada now totally on the backs of philanthropy, it suggests that it is a very fundamental Canadian value that we want people to be able to have the food that they need and if given the opportunity we’ll try to help out. We need leadership, political leadership, that reflects that value as well and that’s what we don’t have. It’s a very serious problem but I think the starting point is exactly the kinds of stories that you’re working on right. People need to be, the public, the same public that is so constantly acting on their concern around things like hunger in Canada, that public needs to be educated around the realities of the social policy underpinnings of these problems. So that when they look to their elected officials, they can look to them for leadership on this point.

INT: Let’s wrap things up by talking about the future. What needs to be done to address food insecurity in Canada going forward?

VT: I think it boils down to a rebuilding of our social safety net. We absolutely need to address the vulnerability of people on social assistance and I think we have to do that on a national level. But in addition it is so, so important that both at the national level and at the provincial level we see action around the vulnerability of people in the workforce. That those supports that are in place, the policy issues that relate to this problem range from federal and provincial tax credits, and tax benefits and tax exemptions to things like minimum wage And layered onto that, possibly, incentives for the private sector to participate more actively in ensuring employment conditions that enable people to realize food security. If there’s an overarching theme, its social safety net, but there are two discrete sub-groups where there needs to be two discrete sets of policy actions, I think. I mean, the one unifying idea that people put forward is a basic income and that’s one way to think about putting in place some kind of an income floor. Another way to think about it is to re-craft the existing policy mechanisms just to make sure that they work better for people on the bottom end of our economic spectrum.

INT: And with that we’ve reached the end of our discussion on food insecurity with the University of Toronto’s Dr. Valerie Tarasuk and the end of this addition of the Homeless Hub podcast. Thanks again for listening and if you have any questions or comments about the podcast or about the Homeless Hub itself you can always reach us by email at thehub@edu.yorku.ca, on Facebook at facebook.com/homelesshub, or via twitter at @homelesshub.

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