Food Insecurity is a Result of Inequity and Poverty
Food insecurity is primarily the result of inequity. This is most evident in the financial constraints too many people experience. Unprecedented inflation and rising costs of food, housing, transportation, etc.; coupled with economic uncertainty and rising interest rates means that many more people are struggling to put enough food on the table. All of the issues and concerns addressed in the 2015 Community Food Security Report Card with regards to Food Access are not only still prevalent today, but the situation has worsened for many people.
Households with lower incomes are more likely to be food-insecure. “Household food insecurity is a marker of material deprivation, tightly linked to other indicators of social and economic disadvantage.”45 In 2021, across Canada, one in seven households relying on employment income were food insecure, and households relying on employment incomes made up 51.9% of food-insecure households. Food insecurity was highly prevalent among households on social assistance (63% food-insecure) as well as those who faced job disruptions and had to rely on Employment Insurance (EI) (42%) or pandemic-related benefits like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) (29%). Relying on any form of public income support except public pensions meant being very vulnerable to food insecurity. 46
Poverty is Worsening For Many
Local and national indicators show that poverty is getting worse for vulnerable populations. In 2017, it was estimated that 14% of the Thunder Bay population faced marginal to moderate food insecurity. 47 Anecdotal reports, as well as much of the data collected, suggest that this rate does not reflect the true levels of poverty in our community which is actually much higher. According to PROOF (see chart below) and echoed by the Thunder Bay Poverty Reduction Strategy (2022), some groups in our community experience poverty at a greater rate than others. These groups include: people earning their income on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, Indigenous people, lone-parent families, new Canadians, older adults, women, racialized peoples ,and individuals with mental health issues and disabilities. 48 It is no coincidence that these groups also experience the highest rates of food insecurity.
Approximately 77% of single parent families in Thunder Bay are led by women. The research indicates that female lone-parent households have the highest rates of food insecurity – nearly double any other household demographic. In 2020, the Thunder Bay Poverty Reduction Strategy reported that the poverty rate for one-parent families headed by a woman with a child aged 0 to 5 was 31.3%, the highest among all family types, and more than five times the rate of couple-families with a child of the same age (6.0%) 49. These figures help to explain why one in five children is food insecure in Canada. 50
Racialization of Poverty
Better data collection and analysis in recent years is providing more accurate information about exactly who struggles with poverty in the Thunder Bay Area. According to PROOF’s national research (see chart below), Indigenous people have the highest rates of food insecurity—over 30%—in the country (this does not include people living in the territories or on First Nation reserves), followed closely by Black people and other racialized peoples/communities.
In the 2021 Census, Statistics Canada reports that 16,935 people identified as Indigenous (First Nations, Métis and Inuit) living in Thunder Bay. That is approximately 14% of the metropolitan area population. 51 However, the Our Health Counts Thunder Bay studies have shown that the Canadian Census undercounts Indigenous peoples living in cities and estimates that there are actually 43,359 Indigenous people living in the city of Thunder Bay which is over three times the number reported in the census. The study also determined that 89% of Indigenous adults in Thunder Bay fall below the before-tax low-income cut-off. 52 Local poverty data for Thunder Bay is collected through the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP) annually. The 2021 data showed that 50% of participants living in poverty self-identified as Indigenous.
Food Banks Canada’s 2022 HungerCount Report also shows that Indigenous people accessing a food bank nearly doubled from 8% in 2021 to 15.3% in 2022. Indigenous households were already having to contend with high rates of food insecurity, and the combination of a reduction in income benefits and skyrocketing living costs in 2022 have had devastating consequences.53 The climate crisis is also impacting food security for Indigenous people by impacting availability of traditional foods, limiting access to hunting and fishing territories, and reducing the availability of ice roads that can be used to deliver food to remote and northern communities. 54
Additional Barriers to Food Access in the Thunder Bay Area
While inequity (and poverty) is the primary determinant of food insecurity, there are other factors that significantly impact food access. To fully understand and appreciate these barriers, a systems approach is required to identify the underlying factors that impact different people and groups. For example, Black and Indigneous people face much higher barriers to food access due to ongoing structural racism and settler colonialism. People living in rural and remote communities also tend to have less access to food and are forced to deal more directly with polluted waterways, toxic soils, and dwindling wild game populations. It is clear that while there is more than enough food in Canada to feed the population, not everyone has the same access to food. 55
Access to transportation is connected to both poverty and food. Focus groups and surveys conducted by the Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy showed that, after the cost of food, lack of transportation is the next largest barrier to buying food. Although bus fares are on par to those of other Canadian cities, it is still a challenge for people with limited income to afford. People with small children or mobility issues also find it difficult or impossible to make trips to and from the grocery store using public transit due to limited routes and scheduling. As a result of anti-poverty advocacy, the City of Thunder Bay is piloting a reduced rate bus pass project for low-income riders in 2023 that will help to reduce the cost-of-transit barrier for some low-income residents.
People facing insecure housing are also more likely to be food insecure. According to the Lakehead Social Planning Council, about half of individuals in Thunder Bay are homeowners, and half are renters. Homeowners spend much less than renters on average monthly shelter costs. While renters pay sometimes 75% of their income or more towards rent, only 9.1% of homeowners spend more than 30% of their income on monthly shelter costs. As the chart below indicates, the overall housing rental market has seen dramatic price increases in rent in recent years, further compounding the difficult affordability choices faced by those on low incomes.
Adequate and affordable meals require a safe place to store and prepare food. Many vulnerable people in Thunder Bay live in rooming houses, motels or temporary accommodations which have very limited cooking facilities, and therefore rely on emergency food providers. Data on homelessness has been difficult to capture during the COVID-19 pandemic. Anecdotal reports show that more people are facing homelessness and that there is insufficient housing supply, leading at times to encampments forming within the City. The real solution requires an increase in affordable and subsidized housing, along with appropriate supports to ensure successful long-term housing. While it appears that social housing vacancy rates and waiting lists have declined compared to 2015, these may be temporary gains resulting from increased funding during the COVID-19 pandemic. 56
Inequity and Poverty are Costly to our Health, Well-Being and Economy
Measures of consumption and nutrition have changed since the publication of the 2015 Community Food Security Report Card. Indications such as body mass index, used to quickly measure obesity, are no longer favoured as health indicators. These kinds of indicators are often not evidenced-based and serve to stigmatize and shame people. We know that only about 25% of the adult population eats more than the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Adult and childhood rates of diabetes are also difficult to confirm.
Many studies show that communities pay a high price for the levels of inequity and food insecurity. Compared to the general population, food insecure households are more likely to have poorer quality dietary intake; fall behind in payments for phone, internet, utilities, and rent; live in overcrowded conditions and in housing in need of major repairs; and not fill prescriptions and not take medications as prescribed because of the cost. 57
Due to its effects on health, household food insecurity also places a substantial burden on our healthcare system and expenditure, while having a negative effect on the health of those living with food insecurity. For example, people who struggle getting food on the table also tend to use health care services such as doctor and emergency room visits more often. On average, a moderately food insecure household has health care costs that are 32% higher than more food secure households. 58 People living in food-insecure households are much more likely to be diagnosed with a wide variety of chronic conditions, diseases and infections, including mental health disorders. Further, “the relationship between food insecurity and health is graded, with adults and children in severely food insecure households most likely to experience serious adverse health outcomes. People who are food-insecure are less able to manage chronic conditions and therefore more likely to experience negative disease outcomes, to be hospitalized, and to die prematurely.” 59
Community Initiatives are Struggling to Fill the Gaps: Food Access Programs
Because income supports are insufficient for many to afford an adequate and nutritious diet, community organizations have stepped up to try and fill the gap. Food banks, initially introduced as a short-term band-aid to food insecurity, have become part of local food access infrastructure. Better data tracking and more support for food bank users has increased in recent years, helping to streamline registration and feed data into provincial food bank use statistics.
Food Banks of Canada’s 2022 Hunger Count Report found that demand for food banks was up 35% from 2019. Further, the demographics of food bank users show that one in seven people are currently employed; an astonishing 33% are children; 45% are from single-adult households; and 49% are reliant on social assistance or disability supports. 60 Feed Ontario’s 2022 Hunger Report observed a 42% increase in food bank visits from 2019-2021; and one in three were first time food bank users (a 64% increase since 2019). 61 Local food banks are reporting increased numbers and new users as well as increased demand overall.
Local emergency food programs such as the Dew Drop Inn also reported a dramatic 50% increase in the number of people accessing daily meals. Staff and volunteers report increased demand, especially from those living on fixed incomes. 62 Most agree that an increase in the use of food banks and emergency feeding programs show that hunger and food insecurity have become chronic, as people come to rely on charitable donations to stretch their monthly food budget. It’s important to note that only 20% of people who are food insecure access food banks. 63 There is insufficient data about what the other 80% of those facing food insecurity are doing to keep food on the table. Data collected by the Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy about the emergency food response during COVID-19 found that some recipients of emergency food seek support from family and friends, “boosting” (shoplifting), and trading as ways in which they made up their shortfall in food access. 64
Community Initiatives are Struggling to Fill the Gaps: Community Initiatives
Locally, uptake for other community food access programs such as the Good Food Box, neighbourhood-based fresh food markets, and community garden involvement have increased in recent years due to ongoing food insecurity issues and the rising costs of food. The Good Food Box Program provides a box once per month of fresh produce, delivered to neighbourhoods at a subsidized cost. The number of host sites, number of boxes and households participating in the program has increased and demand continues to grow across all demographics including seniors, adults and children. Unfortunately, the increased cost of living is making it hard for many subscribers to afford their Good Food Box (approx. cost $22/month) without a financial subsidy. 65
There has been a concerted effort to target fresh food markets in specific neighbourhoods to increase fresh food access in these areas. To try and increase the uptake and affordability of fresh produce, one local community health centre is offering a “greens prescription” to patients to redeem at these fresh food markets. While the overall number of community gardens has decreased, there has been an increase in the number of plots, and there are more community gardens in development. Due to complications of the COVID-19 pandemic, gleaning and community kitchen programs saw a decrease in use, while the number of food hampers was increased in order to help households fill the gap (See the report Learning from Emergency Food Response during COVID-19 in Thunder Bay, Ontario). A number of neighbourhood-based community organizations, such as Our Kids Count, continue to offer important front line food and nutrition work with the children and families they serve. The wild game redistribution program continues to support individuals and families. All of these community initiatives provide benefits by increasing access to fresh produce, but they are not sufficient to meet all of the food security and dietary needs of participants – nor are they addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity.
Evidence-Informed Policy is the Solution
Accessing nutritious, culturally relevant foods remains a significant challenge for those earning low-incomes. Lack of income is the result of inequity and thus, a primary determinant of food insecurity – and the same income limitations are impacted by other costs including transportation, the high cost of housing and rent, and the stark increases in food affordability. Community food access and food literacy programs, food banks, and targeted fresh food markets and Good Food Boxes help support food access efforts, but they are not long-term solutions. “Tackling the conditions that give rise to food insecurity means re-evaluating the income supports and protections that are currently provided to very low income, working-aged Canadians and their families.” 66