Poverty, Hunger and Eating Well: Understanding Food Security

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When you write your grocery list, what do you put on it? Fresh fruit and vegetables; perhaps some milk and yogurt; maybe even a nice cut of meat from the butcher counter? Whatever is on your list, it’s likely chosen so that you and your family have healthy and hearty meals to eat.

But for some four million Canadians, including 1.15 million children, food choices are limited as they struggle to afford the good food they need.

This doesn’t mean that millions of Canadians don’t have food to eat – it means that they don’t have regular access to affordable, healthy foods – something known as food insecurity.

“It’s not enough to have food, it’s about having access to good, healthy, affordable food. A lot of people who are food insecure are not necessarily people you’d expect to recognize,” says Debra Lawson, Executive Director at Second Harvest. “It’s important to understand that you can be eating the recommended number of calories and still suffer from malnutrition.”

In Toronto, just under 12 percent of people struggle to put healthy food on the table on a regular basis, according to the 2012 PROOF report. The reasons vary. Some may work in low-wage jobs; others may be unable to work due to injury or illness; some may face accessibility and mobility challenges; and others still may have dietary restrictions – either for health or cultural reasons – that are too challenging to meet.

“Someone who is food insecure could be the person at the grocery check-out or fast food restaurant. It could be your child’s best friend at school or it could be the senior across the street,” says Lauren Baker, Food Policy Coordinator for the city of Toronto’s Food Policy Council.

Rather than buying fresh produce, dairy products, meats and other nutrient-dense foods, people who are food insecure frequently settle for cheap pastas and other low-cost, low-nutrient foods, says Baker. They may even resort to skipping meals.

"Someone who is food insecure could be the person at the grocery check-out or fast food restaurant. It could be your child’s best friend at school or it could be the senior across the street "

Those affected by food insecurity are not only often hungry, but are also vulnerable to the emotional and psychological challenges that underpin the entire experience.

“Depending on how precarious your situation is, you may have enough money to put food on the table today, but by the end of the month you have to skip meals. It’s very stressful to not know where your next meal is going to come from,” says Baker.

They may also face long-term health challenges.

“Food insecurity creates a strain on the medical system, because if you’re not eating enough nutrient-dense foods, your chances of being healthy are not as good,” says Lawson.

Second Harvest plays a critical role in tackling food insecurity while at the same time tackling the issue of food waste. Good quality donated, surplus food is picked up by Second Harvest and distributed to over 200 agencies and community programs in Toronto that can use that food – food that would otherwise simply be thrown away.

“Second Harvest has built amazing relationships with food manufacturers, distributors, retailers and others so that we can rescue and deliver fresh, healthy food. We bridge the gap between fresh, surplus food and people across Toronto who desperately need it,” says Lawson.

It’s a common sense approach to helping people out who not only don’t have enough food to eat, but who don’t have enough good food to eat.