Have food banks reached their best before date?

A panel of experts at Thursday’s York Region Food Network annual general meeting is leaning to the affirmative.

“We hear from people living on low income that food banks play a role in helping them stretch their small budgets,” network executive director Joan Stonehocker said. “However, after three decades, food insecurity continues to be a problem.”

Food banks are not the answer and are likely diverting valuable public support away from real solutions to this complex problem, she said.

Most Canadian provinces are not providing people on social assistance enough money to buy food for a healthy diet, and that will be costly in the long-term, say poverty experts.

Governments will end up paying the price for the health and social problems created by not providing people on social assistance with the money they need for a healthy diet, says professor Valerie Tarasuk. (CBC)

“I think it’s nuts,” says University of Toronto nutritional sciences professor Valerie Tarasuk.

Particularly for the young, said Tarasuk, a poor diet will lead to problems governments will end up paying for.

“To have somebody who grows up and develops chronic conditions like asthma or depression, things that will need treatment for the rest of those kids lives, to have them not perform well in school and therefore not be able to move effectively into the job market,” she said.

Hunger is on the rise in Kincardine, according to a recent study by the United Way of Bruce and Grey.

The United Way hosted a food bank summit last Thursday at the Grey Bruce Health Unit with regional agencies, including the Salvation Army, and food banks to address the growing issue of hunger and poverty in the region. According to a study compiled by the United Way, the 2013 Hunger Report, food bank visits were up by 47 per cent overall across the coverage area from 2011 to 2013, from 9,215 to 13,518. Not only that, the number of food banks in the area grew from 14 to 20

The biggest takeaway message for me came from Dr. Lynn McIntyre, Professor at the University of Calgary, who went through the history of how food insecurity has been framed in Canada –looking at the unique contribution of nutrition professionals. 1996 marked the beginning of Canada’s commitment to food insecurity, and it was constructed as an income and social issue – We were on the right path! However, a whole bunch of other issues began to get mixed into the problem of food insecurity (a research term called conflation) – which actually made us lose sight of the root cause and focus on the issues that were easiest to solve. McIntyre believes that child feeding programs (like school breakfast programs) and food banks were the first wedge in killing the child poverty reduction movement. Now, food literacy is a hot topic being thrown into this bag of issues too, moving us farther from the real solution. This caused some discomfort in the room – we believe in the importance of food banks, child feeding programs, food literacy programs etc., and know about the great work and benefits of these programs. The problem is not these programs though, we have every reason to continue with these – McIntyre says “Just don’t do it because of food insecurity and hungry kids.” We need to recognize the importance of these programs, while also recognizing that it is not solving the root problem – poverty.

Food insecurity is when you experience uncertain and insufficient access to food. Food insecurity and income are closely linked.

In Guelph and Wellington County, one in five households with incomes below $40,000 is food insecure. Food banks across our region have all experienced significant increases in the number of clients over the last few years. According to data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, 7.4 per cent of households in Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph experience some form of food insecurity.

There are many negative health outcomes associated with being food insecure. For example, it can lead to an increased risk for nutrient inadequacies, adverse pregnancy outcomes, chronic diseases, depression and distress, poor academic performance, or impaired development of social skills.

In 2013, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health estimated it would cost a family of four $195 per week to eat healthy. Since 2009, there has been a 16.7 per cent increase in the cost of food.

Although the increasing food costs appear to be a concerning factor, if we compare income case scenario, we quickly see that inadequate income is a major root issue. After paying for housing and other basic living expenses, many individuals and families with a limited income do not have enough money left over to purchase nutritious food on a consistent basis.

This infographic by Food Banks Canada was part of the HungerCount report. The report states that while there was a drop of approximately 40,000 food bank users between 2012 – 2013, there were 833,000 food bank users in Canada. This is 23% more than the number of people who accessed food banks prior to the 2008 recession. PROOF’s Household Food Insecurity in Canada 2012 report, stated that approximately 1.4 Million households experience food insecurity in Canada.