WE ARE(N’T) WHAT WE EAT

by Lara Choy
Image: Nico Smit / Unsplash

It’s a chilly pandemic winter and three very different Torontonians secretly share in the same struggle. A recently unemployed server rushes down the sidewalk with spare cash from his roommate to pay for a few groceries. He passes a small apartment, where a single mother begins skipping meals to feed her two young children after remote learning eliminates their school’s free lunch program. Down the street, an older woman living in social housing refuses to visit the crowded supermarket and struggles to find another good food source due to her mobility issues. 

Food insecurity remains deeply misunderstood in Canada, despite its increased prevalence in the past year. During the pandemic, millions of Canadians across the country have lost their jobs, their social connections, and critically, their access to adequate nutrition. Without proper food, it is difficult to muster up the necessary energy to meet one’s full potential in every aspect of life. Thus, food insecure individuals generally do not have the tools to succeed at school or in the workplace, nor the capacity to enjoy healthy interpersonal relationships. In fact, a lack of consistent food is linked to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, as well as limited participation in the community. So why has this issue flown under the radar, overshadowed by news of vaccines, unemployment, and political leaders? 

First, we have to consider the groups most affected by food insecurity. 

Compared to white Canadians, black Canadians are almost twice as likely to experience inconsistent food access; nationwide data shows similar statistics for the Indigenous population. In Toronto alone, a Daily Bread Food Bank survey found that 28.4% of black households and 10% of white households are food insecure. Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise: people of colour experience higher rates of poverty. Due to the long history of racial discrimination in this country, Canadians of colour have traditionally encountered barriers to economic opportunities and higher-paying jobs. Thus, they’re left with fewer resources and pathways to food security. 

Some of the most food insecure demographics are also the ones often maligned in the media and in real life: single mothers, immigrants, racial minorities, those in debt, and people of low socioeconomic status. It’s certainly not glamourous and perhaps doesn’t seem as “major” as the issues that affect everybody, like lockdowns and vaccination. We’re inclined to believe that struggles with food insecurity are unique to the so-called developing countries. The blind spot is very real. 

Next, we have to realize how this connects to our own lives. 

You may not know someone who personally suffers from food insecurity (or you may not know that you know someone). Often, it is difficult to care (or feel strongly) about an issue that does not seem to have a large effect on your life or those of the people around you. Also, it’s quite easy in the world of pandemic baking, Netflix binges, and quarantine TikTok, to forget the number of Canadians who actively struggle to feed themselves and their families every day. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun in a bad situation or enjoy any of those things, but we should remember that not everyone has the privilege to stay home or even be bored. 

In addition, this pandemic has made many people consider the opportunities they might have missed over the last year. Let’s apply this idea to food insecurity: across the country, many Canadians (about one in seven, and rising due to the pandemic) cannot reach their full possibilities as they struggle for their next meal. Imagine the uncreated art, untold stories, and unmade connections. This has an effect on not only food insecure people, but every Canadian. By lifting people out of food insecurity, we will not have to consider these hypothetical timelines anymore. It may not be possible to solve this issue within a few years or even generations, but incremental change is well within reach; if fewer and fewer Canadians suffer from food insecurity each year, we ensure a brighter future for everyone. 

Finally, we have to acknowledge that there are no easy solutions. 

Most Canadians who give to food banks likely do so under the belief that their generous donations help to combat wide-scale hunger, but many food insecurity researchers question their effectiveness. Studies in the Toronto area have shown that less than 25% of the food insecure population visits food banks. For many, the idea of visiting a food bank signals shame and defeat一 they are more likely to borrow money from friends and relatives or go into debt in an effort to afford the grocery bill. 

We can all agree that food insecurity is a severe issue but that doesn’t mean we know how to solve it. So far the federal government has invested some $200 million into food banks and food charities, but not nearly enough into social programs that would almost certainly reduce national rates of food insecurity. When poverty is reduced, so is inconsistent access to nutrition. Economic freedom may be the key factor. Try to advocate your politicians to institute policies that will raise the food insecure community to their highest potential and close the achievement gap. In the meantime, seek out businesses that engage in fair wage practices and provide employees with financial benefits. Supporting equitable institutions goes a long way in making Canada a better and more interesting place. On the local level, many neighbourhoods are home to co-ops and community gardens, which contribute to a resilient food economy and are a great way to make connections with your neighbours. It’s a bit of a cliché, but even small actions can have a ripple effect. 

We should not be defined by what we eat or how we get it, but it is incredibly important to ensure that every single person has a viable way to procure food. This is not just for us, or those three people on that snowy day, but for the health and well-being of every person. No solution is perfect, of course, but let’s work to combat food insecurity bit by bit. One day, we could come to a point where we don’t have to worry about huge achievement gaps or lost potential, and that person down the street doesn’t fear that their next grocery bill will send them into debt. After this pandemic is over, many of us have grand plans for ourselves and our futures, but we shouldn’t forget the people around us, whether we know their struggles or not.

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