At the recent Change Toronto event, Professor Valerie Tarasuk of the PROOF Network managed to captivate the room with her passionate and assured opening keynote which covered recent research on household food insecurity in the GTA. The event also included breakout workshops and a panel discussion moderated by Carolyn Young of Sustain Ontario and featured Ayal Dinner of West End Food Co-Op, Gail Nyberg of the Daily Bread Food Bank, and Victoria Armit of East Scarborough Storefront who all provided great insight into the community work and impact of their organizations within Toronto. (Notes from the event sessions will be available online in the coming weeks.)
This was a fantastic event that showcased amazing speakers, but I would like to focus on Valerie’s presentation in particular as it was so closely related to my most recent read-through of the report, “Who’s Hungry - A Tale of Three Cities” by the Daily Bread Food Bank. What made Professor Tarasuk’s presentation so interesting wasn’t the shocking numbers and statistics, but her observations of what those statistics mean from a sociological perspective. 61% of those experiencing household food insecurity are reliant on employment income. Valerie adds to this statistic by stating that raising minimum wage by 50 cents or a dollar will not fix this issue because the problem is that people people are underemployed and evidence shows the way to make it out of severe food insecurity (described as people who go a full day without food) comes from larger jumps in income. She highlights the model of Newfoundland's poverty reduction strategy which launched in 2006 as the only provincial strategy that has made any significant impact and encourages us to seek similar buy-in from other provincial governments.
The entire presentation was extremely informative but some key highlights include the following:
- 39% of food insecure Canadians live in Ontario and half of that in Toronto.
- 557,00 adults and 104, 800 children live in food insecure households in the GTA 2011-2012
- 16% of the food insecure are on social assistance. People in this situation have no financial cushion. Any unexpected expenses causes them to suffer.
- 50% of all women experiencing severe food insecurity also experience anxiety and depression.
- Impact of Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy has been non-existent. Don’t be diluted when provincial governments introduce a strategy, be critical of what is being proposed.
The message stressed throughout the morning session was that we as community organizations must realize we cannot fix this problem ourselves . Professor Tarasuk made a compelling comparison to the SARS epidemic, which saw communities look to our government to intervene with new health policies, short term and long term strategies to eliminate the health threat and ensure it didn’t return. Valerie went on to state that it is absurd to think that the issue of hunger, which is much larger than SARS can be achieved solely by community-based initiatives.
As a community organization, we’re still doing things right. Valerie emphasises that we must continue to advocate for policy change and design our programs so that the people who need them most (those with jobs, health problems, children, low income etc.) can all be involved. Organizations must continue to service those in dire straits and strive to make an impact.
This does beg the question of how much political advocacy can really be done by charitable organizations like Meal Exchange, as by CRA standards - only 10% of resources can be allocated to political activity, which can include advocacy for changes in public policy. Regardless, the Daily Bread Food Bank report and event held by Change Toronto, have left me with much to think about. As the food movement continues to grow on a national and international scale, it’s important to keep a local perspective and understanding of the issues in one’s own province, city, and neighbourhood.