The Federation spoke to Dr. Sara Edge, an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies and newly appointed Associate Director of the Centre for Studies in Food Security (CSFS) at Ryerson University; and Jenelle Regnier-Davies, a Ph.D. student in Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and Research Intern at Durham Food Policy Council & MITACS.
Dr. Edge (SE) and J. Regnier-Davies (JRD) have conducted a research project focused on understanding how COVID-19 is exacerbating food insecurity and health inequalities in the City of Toronto. This includes assessing emergency response preparedness in food security practice before, during, and after the pandemic outbreak; considering how COVID-19 risks are perceived across food security programs; investigating the different adaptive risk management responses being adopted; and mobilizing knowledge-related implications for the resiliency and equity of Toronto's food security programming.
All answers have been edited for length and clarity
Can you tell us about food insecurity?
SE: Four million Canadians were food insecure prior to COVID-19. This disproportionately affects certain populations: racialized groups, the elderly, women, children, those with pre-existing chronic disease, and certainly those who were already socioeconomically disadvantaged. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food insecurity and made it more visible and intense, but it was a major problem even prior.
JRD: The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto has looked at the background of individuals who access their food banks. A large percentage have jobs and a stable income, but still do not earn enough to make ends meet due to the massive living expenses we’re experiencing. You have to make approximately 22 dollars an hour with a 40-hour workweek in order to have a basic standard of living in Toronto. People making 16 dollars an hour don’t have a lot of options, so many access supports like food banks.
SE: Food is a fundamental need (and, in my opinion, a human right), so it is not something that can be ignored. A lot of organizations and citizens are realizing that unless we address some of these fundamental underlying needs, any other interventions are often reactionary and act more like a Band-Aid than a real solution.
Many newcomers face challenges coming to Canada, particularly if they are unable to gain meaningful employment or make use of their experience and accreditations. This can have all kinds of negative effects on one’s health and well-being. The ability to cook or share one’s own culturally appropriate food is a great way to, pardon the pun, break bread, which can be a catalyst for building relationships and social capital, ultimately facilitating social integration.
Can you tell us about your research?
JRD: Food programming is not just churches running food banks. There are also other charitable initiatives that place self-determination at the core of delivering services that aid with food insecurity. This is not broadly understood.
There are food organizations that are fundamentally built by people who grew up, reside in, and are leaders in their communities. In these cases, food banks may be part of that community, but they may also be run in a way that is based on the needs and desires of the specific community.
One great example is that some organizations began conducting their own needs assessments of the people they were serving. To give just one example, the Rexdale Community Hub made sure that anything they put in their hampers was nutritionally and ethno-culturally appropriate. They were able to provide things that were specifically needed by the community. Examples that we heard from the Hub and other service agencies included items like ‘equator’ foods, halal food, hair products with shea butter, and black soap. Often, items like these are overlooked by organizations not as closely integrated in the community they are serving.
SE: Often, local social service agencies are the first to receive funding cuts, yet these local-level agencies have close relationships to the people they serve, which enables them to understand what’s needed on a much finer-grained level. It is not just about making sure people get a certain amount of calories; it’s asking whether they have dietary restrictions due to chronic disease associated with poverty? Or are there cultural norms to consider?
Local agencies understand these needs in a way that other levels of jurisdiction are distanced from, due to community relationships and information access. When we start to imagine an alternative system — one that is more equitable, less hierarchical, and not driven solely by those with a lot of capital and financial clout — then we can begin to further appreciate why local-level agencies and programs should be instrumental in influencing how food system resources are distributed and governed.
How can we transition from understanding to fixing?
JRD: A Toronto-based initiative, Black Food Toronto, focuses on promoting Black food sovereignty. They are working towards gaining further access to kitchen spaces, accessible land ownership, and spaces for Black communities to have a greater say in their food. In East Scarborough in Toronto, there is another initiative that is not just a space for food, but also offers affordable housing. It is an initiative where people of racialized backgrounds can own condos with community kitchen spaces that host training programs and buying clubs, all led by people in the community who want a say in what their food systems look like.
While many scholars and practitioners are calling for changes to federal-level social policy and programs, such as a universal basic income, the community efforts we highlight here go beyond that. Of course, a universal basic income would be a tool to reduce the experience of food insecurity and poverty, but community actors are also calling for resources to build local infrastructure, and for funders and governments to trust that they know what their communities need. We have been relying on a system of food charity and dependency for 40 years in Canada. While we don't want to discredit the hard work that goes into running a food bank, I think there is a collective desire to move past them. There has been a state of emergency for the past 30 years, but we want to move past that state of emergency.
SE: A positive trend from the crisis that we will continue to track is that various funders (governmental, philanthropic, or other) recognized that agencies needed to act urgently and responded by directing resources with fewer requirements of restrictions wherever needed. This allowed much greater flexibility in terms of fund allocation. As Jenelle said earlier, it was impactful because there was trust that local agencies knew how to serve their communities best. We hope that trust and investment continue throughout pandemic recovery stages.
JRD: Someone I interviewed recently mentioned how municipalities invest in researching and understanding the problem, but now is the time to invest in action and infrastructure. People in the community have been saying these problems exist with words, but they are rarely appreciated until they are communicated with quantitative data.
We don’t just need academics to inform this problem, and we certainly don’t want to speak for communities. But we do want to bring attention to the work that they’re doing and to highlight that they are the ones that deserve the attention.
We are looking to move forward to a systems approach, but in practice it’s hard for municipal actors to implement. This was a problem before the pandemic, and it has only gotten worse with the shuffling of departments, staff, and resources towards public health due to this public health nightmare. So how do we push for a food systems approach that is embedded within a broader framework of social determinants of health?
That’s a big question for a lot of food scholars. One of the things we hope this project will help with is the integration of efforts with municipal government, as we’re partnering with the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Office. We want to help bring together academic perspectives, municipal perspectives, and community actors’ and organizations’ perspectives to address the siloing of communication, needs, and responses.
SE: Leaving this conversation, one of the things I would emphasize is that food security and broad environmental health equity is in everyone’s interest. Food insecurity affects many different people in many different circumstances —this is not a small population. Many people thought they had secure jobs, but when COVID-19 hit, they were rattled. Most people’s backup resources run out very quickly.
I hope that on some level, we can help increase people’s empathy and understanding that many families and individuals are only a couple of months away, at best, from being significantly food insecure. Unless you are very well-resourced, an unexpected medical crisis or stressor or expense could put you into a vulnerable situation quickly. We're not talking about a small population of so-called others. This affects everyone, in all communities.