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Putting Good Food on the Table ~ Policy Change is Necessary

As a citizen of the planet and a urban gardener, 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 British Columbia 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?

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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Inspirational Tuesday ~ Talking on the Radio About My Experience with Food Insecurity

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Listen to the show…click here

I am so grateful to Dr. Theresa Nicassio for having me back on her Radio Show to talk about a subject that I am so passionate about: Food Insecuritynot knowing where your next meal will come from due to financial constraint.

Last time I was on the show, I talked about the various Urban Garden projects happening around the world.  People are growing produce in the public realm as a way to tackle food insecurity in their neighborhoods and communities. These gardeners are engaged in grassroots work to compensate for the lack of direct social policies.

They are declaring their independence from the large-scale industrial agriculture system and the negative consequences of monoculture (single crop) farming on our health and the health of our environment through soil depletion, water pollution, generation of excess carbon in the atmosphere and the use of inorganic, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Poverty is not the same as Food Insecurity. Higher unemployment, lower household assets and certain demographics (being a minority, renting vs. owning a residence) are associated with decreased access to adequate, nutritious food.

According to a University of Toronto Multidisciplinary Research Team (PROOF) for Food Insecurity Policy Research, food insecurity can be marginal where people are running out of money for food before their next paycheck, moderate, where families are having trouble putting a balanced meal on the table, or reducing portions and/or foods they eat to make ends meet, or severe, where people go without food for days.

All of these states of household food insecurity have significant impact on physical, mental and social health because people may be prevented from eating enough of the right kinds of nutrients to support and maintain good health, according to the PROOF researchers.

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This was the first time that I shared my personal experience of food insecurity with a wider audience. It was truly liberating to tell my story and give examples of how it played a role in my life. As I spoke with Theresa, I had a profound moment of realization, clarity and relief.

Being a psychologist, Theresa asked me how it made me feel to live in poverty as a new immigrant at nine years of age. The only emotion that surfaced was ‘shame’. Because I had never shared my story with anyone other than my husband, I never gave any thought to how I felt about it all and found it difficult to answer.

After reflecting on where the word ‘shame’ came from, I realized that early on, I drank the insidious cool-aid of Thomas Malthus and other such economic philosophers and social commentators whose theories continue to be debated and influential in modern society hundreds of years later despite their anachronous assumptions about human nature.

This excerpt from an article in Economist View, “Blaming the Poor for their Poverty” accurately sums up (without being reductionist) where my ‘shame’ about being economically poor came from:

“Ultimately, in Malthus’ view, the difference between the rich and the poor comes down to a difference in moral character. It is an attempt to convince us that poverty is inevitable, that it is the consequences of poor choices and the moral inferiority of the poor, and that there is little that can be done about it.

There is a long history of blaming the poor for being poor and downplaying other possible sources of inequality arising from differences in power, social position, institutional structure, and so on, followed by an argument that attempts to help the poor only serve to increase the incentive for immoral behavior.” Economist View 2006

People tried to convince me that poverty was inevitable (particularly as an immigrant) ever since my family and I came to Canada over 30 years ago. These were not malevolent strangers, these were people in my own extended family who themselves were immigrants. Interestingly, these relatives who had come to Canada with nothing managed to improve their financial circumstances through hard work but apparently did not hold the same hope for others or were perhaps using poor-shaming as a motivational technique. A very close version of Malthus’ theory became a part of my internal audio loop.

I felt there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was somehow morally inferior and our financial circumstances/low socioeconomic status, early on, were an outward manifestation, the ‘scarlet letter’, of moral baseness.

It has taken me 30 years to figure out why I felt less than and not ‘a part of’. After the radio show appearance, it dawned on me that I was playing this self-shaming loop in my head for all this time.

Why do I advocate and feel so passionate about alleviating food insecurity? Because upholding human rights and dignity of everyone on this planet through compassion, love, fairness, awareness and understanding is the only way forward.

Grow ~ Share ~ Thrive

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Inspirational Tuesday ~ Food Security in the ‘Invisible North’

Food security is an issue near and dear to my heart.  Although I live in Canada, not all our citizens have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life at all times.

Food security is not just a poverty issue. It is a much larger issue that involves the whole food system and affects everyone in some way.

As consumers, do we think about what is in the food we buy? How it is grown? Who is involved in growing it?  Where the food comes from? Who can afford it?

Can we support local, small-scale farmers who produce food in sustainable ways?

Can local, small-scale farming feed a projected world population of 9 Billion people by 2050?

It is a myth that world hunger is due to scarcity of food. We need to rethink how we are going to feed the human race.

The existence of food security insecurity in a wealthy country like Canada is not accidental. It is the result of policies created by different government sectors, including social, agricultural, economic, and health. For example, in the social policy sector, food insecurity is created by both reduction in social assistance rates and restrictive eligibility criteria.” ~ Laura Kalina, R.D.N. M. Ad. Ed. Building Food Security in Canada: From Hunger to Sustainable Food Systems: A Community Guide (2002)

I just finished reading Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo, published in 2016

This book is about the ‘fourth world’ conditions that exist on many Aboriginal reserves in the Canadian North. Alexandra is a journalist and former MacLean’s Magazine editor who visited the Kashechewan Reserve in Northern Ontario to report on a water crisis. She walked away a changed woman and with a real story to tell. As Alexandra Shimo lays out in her book, food security and racialized poverty are major issues.

She demonstrates how high level political and economic policies play out in the daily lives of aboriginal people. Alexandra’s book gives a hard and honest look at the disparity that exists and the barriers (historic, political, social, economic) faced by aboriginal people almost every step of the way.

Despite Canada’s 1998 Action Plan for Food Security, equal access to nutrient dense food is far from reality.

This book is a fascinating and sobering read from start to finish. Alexandra skillfully wove her personal experience and journalistic hunt for the truth about e.coli water contamination with the harsh reality of daily life, politics, food security and the arm’s length control by Ottawa.

The following is an excerpt from Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve about Alexandra’s first grocery shopping experience in Kash.

“At the fruit and veggie section, a bunch of grapes (seventy-nine grams or about one hundred grapes) costs $13.42, a bag of apples (three pounds of golden delicious) is $15.29, and a single head of red cabbage is $12.89. The prices don’t reflect the quality: the veggies are dry or browning, and some of the meat is pat its sell-by date…Mostly I’ve bought mac and cheese, pasta , and tuna fish…I stand nervously at the checkout and nervously watch the numbers spiral upward. My first grocery bill comes to $342.57…Fuck, I think. How do people survive on the $383 monthly welfare?” ~ Alexandra Shimo

Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve

Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve by Alexandra Shimo

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Gluten Intolerance ~ It’s About The Food System

In September 2016, I wrote a blog post “Oh Gluten, why do I not eat you so“. I do not have Celiac Disease but have chosen to exclude gluten (for the most part) from my diet. My article was a tongue-in-cheek review of societal perceptions when it comes to those of us who are ‘gluten intolerant’ and/or choose to exclude gluten from our diet.

For those living with Celiac Disease, gluten is a very serious matter.

The Canadian Celiac Association defines gluten as follows:

“Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale – a cross between wheat and rye. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together. Gluten can be found in many types of foods, even ones that would not be expected.”

‘Gluten intolerance’ is misunderstood and, at times, ridiculed because of a limited  understanding of what is happening in the food system, where food comes from and how it is grown, harvested and subsequently processed.

Although I have read research and books upon books on gluten, non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (a term used to describe the “clinical state of individuals who develop symptoms when they consume gluten-containing foods and feel better on a gluten-free (GF) diet but do NOT have Celiac disease“) and other related conditions that are alleviated by excluding gluten from one’s diet, the information I learned from an interview with Dr. Jill Carnahan was noteworthy. She shed some light on how food production has changed and how those changes are potentially leading to ‘gluten intolerance’ in some people.

Dr. Jill Carnahan, M.D., a specialist in functional medicine and cancer survivor, was on the Dr. Theresa Nicassio Radio show a couple of weeks ago. The information and research findings she shared about wheat (which contains gluten molecules) and the use of  Glyphosate (the chemical RoundUp) in the US at harvest time were eye-opening and a piece of the food system puzzle I didn’t know existed.  My hope is that you find the information presented in the broadcast as informative and life changing as I did.

Dr. Jill Carnahan Radio Broadcast from January 23, 2017

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