NL·Fed Up

N.L.'s fall from grace on food insecurity record 'disturbing'

CBC NL has collaborated with Food First NL, the province's not-for-profit organization that works to improve access to food, for a yearlong series that explores the issue.

Year-long series explores why so many in N.L. are struggling to put food on the table

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, says there is a big difference in how N.L. fares now on food insecurity rates now compared with 2015. (CBC)

Food policy expert Valerie Tarasuk doesn't mince words when it comes to how Newfoundland and Labrador has slipped in terms of people going hungry. 

"It's really quite disturbing," she says.

Food insecurity is the struggle to afford food or have access to food.

Tarasuk, a professor at the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said the province once held bragging rights, of sorts, when it came to the issue.

"Newfoundland and Labrador was the poster child for managing food insecurity," she said.

That was in 2011, when the rate people experiencing food insecurity was 10.6 per cent — the lowest in the country.

Produce including fruits and vegetables on display at grocery store.
Food insecurity is an inability to have regular, affordable access to healthy food. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Fast forward to the latest data, available in 2017, and it's a different picture entirely. Newfoundland and Labrador now has the highest rate of food insecurity among Canadian provinces — 15.9 per cent, according to data compiled by Proof Canada, a research team that investigates and publishes annual reports on food insecurity using data from Statistics Canada.

So what happened? 

Tarasuk said it's hard to pinpoint exactly, partly because the provincial government stopped tracking food insecurity numbers. The tracking was made mandatory in 2016 and new numbers started coming in. 

"Basically, they turned the lights out on our study of food insecurity in your province," she said. 

When the lights came back on, Tarasuk said, researchers started to see much higher rates of insecurity among people on income assistance as well as people in the workforce. Most research is being done into other contributing factors for the uptick in rates, too.

What researchers do know is that between 2007 and 2012 — the years of the oil boom — there was a significant reduction in food insecurity rates in N.L. 

Money was flowing, but fuel and food costs were on the rise because of inflation. 

That's when the province's poverty reduction strategy played a pivotal role, according to Tarasuk. 

Specifically, indexing income assistance to inflation was crucial —  something the provincial government doesn't do anymore. 

"To have benefits indexed to inflation in Newfoundland and Labrador was phenomenal. And it was a leader in the country in doing that," said Tarasuk. 

It was actually back in September 2015 when Tarasuk first spoke to CBC News about this province when it came to food security rates, singling out the provincial government's poverty reduction strategy for its "whole range of measures to try and reduce poverty in the province."

At the time, Tarasuk pointed to extended benefits around health care and credits for affordable housing.

"If someone was on social assistance and able to work, they were able to retain more of their earnings, which is huge," she said. That helped make sure low-income earners had enough cash to spend on basic groceries.

'We don't have all the answers'

The provincial government, for its part, says it does spend significant money on reducing poverty, even if there isn't a specific strategy bearing that name. 

"I think overall, right now, there's $286 million that we invest in more than 100 poverty reduction initiatives and that number has been growing steadily since we formed government in 2015," said Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Lisa Dempster. 

Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Lisa Dempster says while there is no longer a specific strategy or plan in place to reduce poverty, money is still being spent to address the issue. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Dempster said the current government inherited a financial crisis when it came to power, one that includes the issue of Muskrat Falls, the overbudget megaproject. 

"You get elected and you're there to represent the people and there's a long list of needs, some are wants, wishes," she said.

"You want to make investments, you want to grow the economy, but you have this monster in the room — this elephant that is eating up all the money — but you still have a responsibility to provide government programs and services to the people that elected you and put you to work for them."

Dempster also doubts the numbers are as dire as those presented by Proof, but she agrees more attention and action is needed on food insecurity.

The record-smashing snowstorm that battered St. John's and surrounding areas in January brought some new issues around food insecurity to light, said Dempster.

The states of emergency imposed on the region were a particularly precarious time for low-income earners and those who rely on food banks, she said. And just this week, Food First NL said it wants people to weigh in on "lessons our food systems can take from the recent snowstorm."

The organization is having a meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. to talk about the event and food insecurity. 

Volunteers pulled together donations of food and other items, and then prepared packages that could be distributed, in the wake of the blizzard that hit St. John's and surrounding areas. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

While no decision has been made on bringing back a new poverty reduction strategy, Dempster said her door is open for input from community partners and front line workers. 

"We don't have all the answers. We are more likely to get where we need to be by working together," said Dempster. 

The concept of working together is one Tarasuk urges, too. 

"What needs to happen, and it's not just the responsibility of the province, but the province in tandem with the federal government need to take a good hard look at how you're providing support to people who are on the bottom end of the continuum," said Tarasuk. 

Fed Up is a yearlong series by CBC NL, in collaboration with Food First NL, exploring the issues surrounding food insecurity and why many people in the province struggle to access food.

Follow CBC's Fed Up series over the next year.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He is the host and producer of the lunchtime radio program The Signal.

With files from Amy Joy