BY Violeta Puente-Duran, MScA in Human Nutrition
Food insecurity occurs within a household when food quantity and variety are reduced due to financial limitations. In Hamilton, food insecurity affects more than one in nine households. How might families and individuals deal with food insecurity? One, by turning to food banks for temporarily relief; two, by buying less food and thus eating less; three, by purchasing energy-dense, lower cost foods; four, by feeding their children before themselves. This can result in nutrient deficiencies and poor health. How can we mitigate the ill-effects of food insecurity? By increasing the number of food banks? By comparing all the weekly flyers and budgeting accordingly? By advocating for lower food costs? The answer is no. Food insecurity occurs when income is inadequate. Thus, we can come up with all sorts of temporary solutions, but until income is appropriately addressed, food insecurity will continue to exist.
A tool that is used to monitor the cost and affordability of healthy eating is the Nutritious Food Basket (NFB) . The foods selected for the NFB fit within the Canada’s Food Guide for Healthy Eating (vegetables, fruit, grains, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives) and are based on the lowest cost. In Hamilton, the cost of healthy eating for a family of four was $827 per month in 2015. The average monthly housing cost was $1030, and income from Ontario Works $2196. For a family of four on OW healthy eating -at its cheapest- costs close to half of the household income. The remainder goes towards rent, and 15% is left for “others”. So the budget is tight. No doubt about it. Whether or not this breakdown accurately describes households’ expense patterns (and it most likely does not), it is still insufficient. The 15% that represents the “others” figure is $339. Other necessities include clothing, toiletries, detergent, toilet paper, baby products if needed, other bills. Then there are non-necessities: cigarettes, alcohol, family outings and events, and so on and so forth.
Currently, the allocation to basic needs (food and others) for a family of four on OW is under $500; that’s almost half of the cost of the NFB
Food insecurity should not exist. And while income remains insufficient for many, other measures need to be taken. Currently, the allocation to basic needs (food and others) for a family of four on OW is under $500; that’s almost half of the cost of the NFB. What if, for instance, the cost of the NFB was included in the calculation for OW? And along with that an educational component implemented, whereby community educators assist families and individuals in choosing food items that make up the NFB? The allocation of funds to nutritious foods would at least partially address food insecurity. It is possible to reduce food insecurity. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, food insecurity and hunger were reduced through the implementation of the Zero Hunger Strategy. The success of the program was made possible by a Mayor, in the 90s, who mandated that all citizens have access to healthy food. In the following years, inter-sectoral collaboration, implementation of policies along with well-planned evaluation systems, among others, resulted in the program success and nation-wide expansion. The following are brief summaries of some of the programs designed under this initiative:
1. Bolsa Familia (Family Grants): a cash-transfer program targeted to families with high needs;
2. Popular Restaurants: where government funded, low-cost, nutritious meals are accessible to everyone;
3. School Meal Programs: fully funded by Government;
4. Food Banks: not the traditional kind; these are designed to reduce unnecessary food waste; produce is donated by farmers and supermarkets, safely packaged and donated to local charities;
5. Food Outlets: sell a number of food items at a set-cost which is below market price;
6. Basic Basket Research: similar concept to the NFB, except these are done weekly by the city and posted on local bus stops, and others, to help the public find the lower cost options, and encourage big retailers to make prices more competitive;
7. Straight from the Country: select rural producers sell quality controlled produce at a regulated price in city locations (8,9,10).
The Zero Hunger strategy took millions of Brazilians out of extreme poverty, significantly reduced chronic malnutrition in children, and reduced the number of households that faced severe food insecurity.
Reducing food insecurity is possible. Brazil has been exemplary and has proven that determination, collaboration, participation, and exceptional planning and leadership can make a big difference
Reducing food insecurity is possible. Brazil has been exemplary and has proven that determination, collaboration, participation, and exceptional planning and leadership can make a big difference. Hamilton is not without its efforts. There are several organizations and bodies fighting food insecurity every day. Even the City of Hamilton (website) suggests that social assistance should be based on actual cost of living and encourages the public to talk to their local MPs. In Hamilton, there is no food shortage. Let us create policies that allow for more equal distribution of food, that help reduce waste, that increase activity in the local economy, and ensure that no one goes to bed hungry again. It can be done.
Violeta recently completed her Master’s in nutrition and focused her final project on food insecurity. She works as a health educator in chronic disease management and in her time-off she enjoys blog writing and running. She is currently pursuing dietetics and plans to work in the community setting when she becomes a dietitian.
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