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Food Insecurity and Development of Inequality in Toronto, Canada

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From Food Banks to Food Insecurity: Reflections of Toronto’s Growing Inequalities

Food banks were originally designed to provide short-term responses to Canadians facing acute issues of hunger. However, during the economic recession in the 1980s and 1990s, with government cuts to income support programs, it became increasingly apparent that these needs went beyond short-term levels with food bank usage rising dramatically (Canada without Poverty, 2015). Often called ‘food banks,’ these programs were often used as the primary indicator of hunger (Loopstra and Tarasuk, 2015; Tarasuk et al., 2014a). However, in 2005, when Canada adopted the broader concept of food security, following its definition by UN World Food Summit in 1996 Food Summit (cited in Blay-Palmer, 2016), more consistent monitoring and measurement commenced (Loopstra & Tarasuk, 2015). With research including more systemic factors such as income levels and social programs/supports in place to ensure sufficient and healthy food availability, various patterns have come to light, particularly in large cities like Toronto (Anderson, 2016). These patterns suggest not only considerable rises in food bank usage, but also in the length of time accessing food banks, reflective of broader income inequalities and rising rental and child care rates. In the following paper, a brief history of food banks and food security will be outlined, nationally, provincially and most notably, in the municipality of Toronto. Changes in food bank usage and food in/security will also be tracked and contextualized along broader patterns of social, political and economic disparities to argue that tackling issues of food insecurity must be done alongside more coordinated, comprehensive and systemic changes so that Toronto’s residents have access to the resources they need to achieve a basic standard of health and well-being.

The Rise Poverty and Food Insecurity in Canada 

As poverty rates have continued to escalate in Canada, so too has the need for food banks. Given broader economic crises in the 1990s, and more recently in 2008, the number of food banks has, not surprisingly, risen dramatically. In a study of 340 of Canada’s 550 food banks, in five major Canadian cities (Halifax, Quebec City, Toronto, Edmonton, and Victoria) almost 70% have been operation for at least ten years, and only 25% before 1970 (Tarasuk et al., 2014). Since the most recent economic downturn in 2008, approximately 25% more Canadians are using food banks, and for longer periods, doubling from 1 to 2 years from 2008 – 2015 (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2015). Although these increases may be cause for concern, data on food bank usage is reported to represent only approximately one third of all Canadians facing broader issues of food insecurity (Loopstra & Tarasuk, 2012).
The term food security was mainstreamed in 1996 at the United Nations (UN) World Food Summit, and is said to exist when “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (Tarasuk, Mitchell & Dachner, 2014, p. 6). While Canada adopted this definition in theory at this time, it was not until 2005 that it was used in practice and measured in a systematic way (Tarasuk et al, 2014). As research began to emerge about the extent of food insecurity in Canada, it quickly became apparent that this was a significant issue. For example, Statistics Canada (2012) reported that in 2011, food insecurity affected at least 1.6 million households in Canada (Knezevic et al., 2014), which represented over 12% of Canadian households and 3.9 million people, up by 450,000 since 2008 (Canada without Poverty, 2015).
General demographic patterns and risk levels have also been discerned in food insecurity research. Current estimates suggest that Canadian 15.6% of Canadian households with children under 18 experience food insecurity versus a rate of 10.4% for those without children at 10.4% (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2014). Single parent families are also at higher risk levels, especially if female headed, comprising the highest rate of all groups at over one third (33.5%) in 2014 (Tarasuk et al., 2014). Food insecurity rates have also been reported to be markedly higher among First Nations peoples, with gender factored in to be 16% for men living off reserve and 26% women living off reserve between 2007 and 2010 (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2016). Similar patterns were found among Inuit populations, although gender was less evident in estimated rates at 28% for Inuit women and 27% for Inuit men (Employment and Social Development Canada, 2016). Race and ethnicity also factored into food insecurity rates; Canadians with African and Caribbean descent, with food insecurity rates at 29.4% in 2014 (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2014).
As research on food security levels in Canada has continued to unfold, so too have reported disparities with regards to a lack of food bank usage. For example, among those considered severely food insecure –  defined as missing meals, reducing food intake and at the most extreme, going day(s) without food (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2014) – only 40% of respondents reported using a food bank, and far fewer for other food programs such as community kitchens or gardens (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2015). In another study with several hundred low-income families in Toronto, 75% of participants reported experiencing some level of food insecurity; yet less than one quarter (23%) stated they had ever used a food bank (Loopstra & Tarasuk, 2012). As such findings suggest, numbers of Canadians experiencing food insecurity are far higher than those using food banks.

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Barriers to Food Bank Usage Quality and Quantity
One of the central barriers in the research literature with regards to food bank usage relates to quality and quantity of food. Generally, because food banks rely on donations to meet the supply side, inherent challenges arise in the quality and quantity of food given (Loopstra & Tarasuk, 2012). Thus, when demand exceeds supply, food banks are faced with the difficulty of putting restriction criteria in place. This was noted in a national study a study with 340 of Canada’s 550 food banks in five Canadian cities, with the majority reporting limited hours of operation at one or two days per week (Tarasuk et al., 2014). One such example is in the city of Cobourg, Ontario with the food bank being two days per week, three hours per day on Wednesdays and Fridays (Tsang, Holt & Azevedo, 2011). However, this food bank limits clients access it two times per month (Tsang, Holt & Azevedo, 2011), which speaks to larger issues between supply and demand, echoed in other studies. For example, the noted research conducted by Tarasuk et al. (2014) with 340 of Canada’s food banks highlighted the need for screening prospective users for eligibility (e.g. income levels, unemployment, living in the catchment area, etc.), and most capped the number of times which people could obtain food hampers.
Limitations in the quantity of food available have also been noted on the user side, one of the main barriers identified in the literature. For example, in a qualitative study by Lightman, Herd & Mitchell (2008) with current and former welfare recipients in Toronto, issues of supply was frequently noted among food bank users. Several of the participants also spoke of supply paucities by only being offered food that was of very poor quality, including items given past expiry dates. Similar findings were noted in a study by Tsang, Holt & Azevedo (2011) among food insecure individuals in Cobourg, Ontario, with respondents noting a lack of healthy food at food banks, such as fruits and vegetables. Staples, such as milk, pasta and peanut butter were reported to be depleted very quickly, leaving little supply for immediate needs. Such experiences were also reported among food insecure families in a study by Loopstra and Tarasuk (2012), who also stated that they rarely bothered going to food banks because they did not find it worthwhile given the paltry, if not questionable amount of food and support that would likely be available at all.

Toronto in Perspective
While the economy has witnessed positive changes in the last few years, food bank usage in Toronto suggests otherwise. According to the Daily Bread Food Bank (2017) usage levels mirror those not seen since almost a decade ago following the aftermath of the global financial crisis. In their most recent report, client visits to the Daily Bread and North York Harvest Food Banks in 2016 – 2017 were just shy of 1 million people (990,970), a figure that is 24% higher than in 2008, and 9% higher than just 2 years ago. People are also having a harder time escaping poverty as the report notes that the average length of time accessing food banks has doubled from 2010, from 1 year to 2 respectively.
While a myriad of initiatives and strategies put in place by various governmental and non-profit bodies to try and level the playing field among all Torontonians, stark differences remain. In a report by United Way of Toronto and York Region (2015), it was noted income inequality in Toronto has risen 31% over the last 25 years, much more quickly than provincial and national rates. One of the central ways in which this inequality is reflected is housing costs, and in comparing Toronto to other provincial cities, it is clear that this situation is worsening. According to a study by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (2017) Toronto was listed as the highest of all 10 cities in the province, with 2017 average rental rates for a 1 bedroom apartment at $1,137. Ottawa was listed as the 2nd highest, though a rather distant one with average rates listed at $982, followed by Hamilton at $812. This means that the amount of income being spent on rent for these individuals is in the range of 40 to 60 percent (Ontario Association of Food Banks, 2017).
Given these rates, it is perhaps not surprising that many municipal agencies providing other vital services are also facing significant difficulties. For example, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (2017) recently reported a shortfall estimated to be over $1.7 billion, a situation that is only predicted to magnify with predictions for plummeting stock values  (as cited in Ontario Association of Food Banks, 2017). Though publicly funded child care or day care is available throughout the country, like other measures, those in large cities face much higher costs and less available public spaces for their children, a situation that suggests Child Toronto is becoming a less livable city, especially among those with low-incomes. (Toronto Region Board of Trade & United Way of Toronto and York Region, 2014). With rental and housing costs rising, many residents have been driven out of the city, one of the central reasons for increases in food bank usage by 45% in areas such as Etobicoke, Scarborough and Vaughan (Daily Bread Food Bank, 2015). More recently, during the past year Scarborough visits have increased dramatically by approximately 30%, perhaps suggestive of the over-representation of residents who newcomers to the city and living on low incomes compared to Toronto.

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This paper has highlighted food insecurity and food bank usage among Toronto residents generally, and in comparison to their provincial and national counterparts. Several studies were drawn upon that capture these measures, all of which point to cause for concern with numbers only continuing to rise. These numbers were also situated alongside mounting for costs such as rental housing and child care, suggestive of broader patterns in poverty levels and income disparities. And while the adoption of the term food security was discussed in terms of what some have viewed as a progressive initiative in that it expands and provides indicators that extend beyond beyond hunger, as data continues to become available, it paints a grimmer picture in terms of maintaining a basic standard of living in the city. Indeed, activist and organizing efforts have also ensued to challenge the social, economic and political underpinnings of food insecurity and its overlaps (Anderson, 2016), at present it appears in Toronto, these efforts are being outweighed by deeper patterns of an unlivable city.


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  • Blay-Palmer, A. (2016). Power imbalances, Food insecurity, and children’s rights in Canada. Frontiers in Public Health, 4 (117), 1-14.
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