Rise in food bank use hints at larger issue across region

Food security is not a food issue. That’s a message that Lisa Needham, a Public Health Nutritionist in Waterloo region, struggles to get across. “Where we have actually seen results has been through social policies that focus on income,” she said.

The truth about food insecurity, is it's not about food, says Public Health nutritionist

Food banks across the country, such as this one in Toronto, are reporting increases in users. The Guelph food bank reported an increase in visits of 30 per cent from 2015-2016. (CBC)

Food security is not a food issue.

That's a message that Lisa Needham, a Public Health Nutritionist in the Waterloo Region, struggles to get across.

"Where we have actually seen results, and pulling someone from the issue of being food insecure, has been through social policies that focus on income," she said.

"It's an income based issue."


The Guelph Food Bank reported a 30 per cent increase from 2015 to 2016, rising well above 35,000 uses of their services throughout the year.

While these numbers are significant, Needham suggests they actually do very little to demonstrate the issue of food insecurity across the region.

"Some of the supports we have in the community are really great, and they've provided support to the community members. But they're treating the symptoms of the issue, not addressing the root," she said.

Food insecurity in Canada is divided into three categories: marginal, moderate and severe. Previously those numbers have varied in representation, with research focusing on measuring moderate and severe food insecure households.

In Guelph, from 2012 to 2014, the Canadian Community Health Survey reported that 17 per cent of households were food insecure.

Food banks -while supporting community members- are not a viable long term solution for food insecurity, said Lisa Needham, of WDG Public Health. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

"That's a fairly high percentage," says Needham.

"There is definitely something going on in our community that we need to be looking at."

Hard to track changes

What makes it more challenging is that data from food banks can't point directly to an issue, or more importantly, to the solution.

While the Guelph Food Bank reported 30 per cent more people, or 8,264 more visits in 2016 than 2015, what's unclear is what motivated people to come to the food bank.

And most emergency food providers measure differently, some counting unique visitors, others counting total visits. Some don't even record data at all.

Needham uses it in her research as a "general idea of what's going on."

What's more, Food Insecurity Policy Canada — PROOF— reports that only one quarter of food insecure families use food banks, and most often were in the moderate to severe category.

"A lot of people aren't accessing those services, and those that are, are probably more in the moderate to severe forms of food insecurity," said Needham.

But within the community, emergency food providers are feeling the pressure.

"We definitely hear across the board from service providers that they are seeing an increase in the number of people that they serve," said Randalin Ellery,  a co-ordinator for the Guelph & Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, an advocacy group in Wellington region.
Data from PROOF- Food Insecurity Policy Research- shows that it is mostly houses with inconsistent income sources that struggle with food insecurity. (PROOF/University of Toronto)

"Organizations are having to stretch what their mandate is to reach all the differing needs of the community members," she said. "Service providers are struggling to meet the needs of community members."

Economic causes

Ellery and the Poverty Task Force agree with Needham, that there needs to be an income-based solution to fix the food insecurity problem.

"We've seen very little change in social assistance rates and very little change in minimum wage," she said.

Rising rent costs in the city and an increase in low-income, 'precarious' jobs are increasing numbers of the working poor in Guelph: individuals who are employed but struggle to make ends meet.

According to Ellery, the living wage for the Guelph-Wellington area is $16.50 an hour. And while the province's announced raise in minimum wage helps, there are other systems that need to be changed.

Needham says there have been issues for years, with little indication of a solution.

"The first food bank was established in the 80s in Canada, and now we have close to 5,000 emergency food providers," she said.

"What has happened, that the situation hasn't improved?"

It's really not a food issue. It's the financial constraints that's the issue.- Lisa Needham, WDG Public Health

"People think it's 'oh, those that are on social assistance,'" she said.

"They actually don't make up the majority of people that are food insecure across the country."

Needham said data shows 62 per cent of those who experience food insecurity across Canada actually do earn wages.

Not about food

Generally, affordable housing is considered to be 30 per cent of a person's pay.

"For many low-income families they're spending 40-90 per cent of their income on housing," said Needham. "So that's a real concern."

There needs to be an increase in wage and job security before we can see any real change, she said. But this issue needs to be address with the right kind of answer, and Needham says most people forget that food insecurity isn't about food.

"It's really not a food issue. It's the financial constraints that's the issue."