Nfld. & Labrador·Fed Up

Want to lower food insecurity rates? Experts say systemic change is needed

A decade ago, Newfoundland and Labrador led the country with the lowest rates of food insecurity. They are now among the highest. Adam Walsh looks at what it will take to reverse a worrisome trend.

Reversing a worrisome trend will not be easy, but can be done

A decade ago, Newfoundland and Labrador set an example with the lowest food insecurity rates in the country. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the province finds itself at the back of the pack. (Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

A decade ago, Newfoundland and Labrador was setting an example by having the lowest food insecurity rates in the country. 

But that was then. 

Coming into the pandemic, we found ourselves at the back of the pack with some of the highest rates in the country. 

For much of the past year, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador has been reporting on food insecurity through our series FedUp.

We examined how the provincial government's poverty reduction strategy was credited with playing a pivotal role in managing food insecurity. However, it stopped tracking statistics around 2012, and for a number of years, the lights seemed to have been turned off on the study of food insecurity. 

When the lights came back on, N.L. found itself in different circumstances. 

With food bank usage spiking in the last months of 2020 and into this year, it suggests things are getting worse. 

So we are once again asking: how do we fix things? 

What is food insecurity, again? 

Food insecurity is the struggle people face to afford or have access to food — even though there's food available. 

Rising rates of food insecurity mean there's rising poverty. 

Tony Brushett is the executive director of the Salvation Army Ches Penney Centre of Hope. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Before Christmas, the Salvation Army's Tony Brushett said the organization's downtown food bank had seen a near 100 per cent increase over the course of a few months. 

"We're seeing up towards 150 families a week coming for the food bank, and these are folks who a year ago, they would never have pictured themselves coming to a food bank," said Brushett, the executive director of the Salvation Army Ches Penney Centre of Hope. 

The thing is, that spike didn't surprise anyone on the front lines of food insecurity.

The math was simple. 

When the pandemic started, emergency aid such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit started to flow, and some food banks actually saw a drop in demand. 

WATCH | The Salvation Army opened a new centre in downtown St. John's during a pandemic, and found the timing was ideal: 

Inside the new home for the Salvation Army in St. John's

2 years ago
Duration 2:14
In a pandemic, the Salvation Army has opened a new building to provide services that have never been needed as much. Adam Walsh reports

The thinking was that when those benefits ran out, demand would increase. 

And that is what happened. 

Change needed

"People had enough to live for a brief period of time to give them a little bit of stability in an otherwise pretty, pretty tough living situation to begin with," said Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. John's. 

Pawson said the increase in usage after CERB's exhaustion shows a need for a rethink, and an overhaul of existing services and supports. 

How do we deliver social services? How do we make sure people have enough income to live?Doug Pawson

"How do we deliver social services? How do we make sure people have enough income to live?" asked Pawson. 

"That's why the conversation for so many people around the country gravitated to this notion of a basic income or a guaranteed livable wage, because the existing systems just don't provide enough for people to have stability in their lives," he said. 

Doug Pawson, the executive director of End Homelessness St. John's, says there needs to be an overhaul in how we deliver social services. (Submitted by Doug Pawson)

Pawson's view isn't a solitary one. 

In the past year, in interview after interview about emergency food aid, front-line workers and experts told CBC News the social safety net needs to be changed in order for there to be genuine progress in fighting poverty. 

With the economy in shambles, Pawson also made the point that inaction when it comes to poverty is costlier — you find higher rates of poor health outcomes, homelessness, food insecurity and incarceration. 

Emergency responses don't lead to better outcomes, either, he said. 

Poverty, food and health 

Last month, Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Lynnette Powell spoke about some of the health costs that she sees as a family physician, during an interview with The St. John's Morning Show. 

"I live in central Newfoundland. We have some of the highest rates of diabetes, obesity, and those things are all directly connected to food insecurity — the ability of people to make good food choices," she said. 

Powell said food insecurity is one of the determinants of health that has the biggest impact on what she sees daily in her medical practice. 

"At the end of the day, relying on donations to food banks is not the way we want to see our population deal with the food insecurity issue," she said. 

"Healthy public policy needs to happen for us to see reductions in poverty."

Heidi Janes has written extensively on food insecurity for the Independent, a St. John's-based online publication, and is focusing on the issue for a graduate degree. She says in terms of public policy changes, the provincial government can choose to do more — but is not.

"Our government could have stepped in over the past several months and said, 'You know what? We're going to make income supports more flexible. We're going to have a response in place where we can prevent people from actually falling through the cracks,'" she said. 

Janes's suggestions for policy changes that would lower food insecurity rates are exempting CERB from income support, emergency reform of income-testing requirements for social assistance, and raising the minimum wage to $15. 

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, is a leading researcher on food insecurity. (CBC)

A year ago, when CBC News spoke with food policy expert Valerie Tarasuk, she heralded the government's work of about a decade ago because of how successful its poverty reduction strategy was. 

"It sounds like pie in the sky … 'We're just going to give people money and then, you know, they're going to spend it on food,' but in fact that's what happens," said Tarasuk, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto

"That's why the poverty reduction strategy was so effective through those earlier years," she said. 

'Challenging times'

So, what does Brian Warr — the minister of children, seniors and social development, and the point person in cabinet for poverty reduction — have to say? In mid-December, CBC News asked the provincial government what its planned response was for the increased demand at food banks. 

Warr was not available for an interview, but his department sent a statement.

While the statement did not answer the question, it said the department recognizes these are challenging times. 

Moya Greene is leading the economic recovery team that is scrutinizing government spending and services. The team is scheduled to deliver a final report to the provincial government in April. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

"We appreciate the concerns regarding food security, particularly people living in low income and those impacted by recent job losses due to the global pandemic" it said. 

It then listed items from the most recent provincial budget that supported poverty reduction such as "assistance for expectant mothers, ensuring that school-aged children receive nutritious meals, providing affordable housing and preventing homelessness, $25-a-day child care and benefits for low-income seniors, individuals, families and persons with disabilities."

It ended by saying, "We look forward to the learnings from the premier's economic recovery team and the Health Accord NL, as these initiatives will help inform the development of a renewed poverty reduction strategy."

In launching the economic recovery team, the government said its members are "leaders recognized locally, nationally and internationally with extensive experience in such areas as technology, finance, oil and gas, labour and the public service." 

Advocates, though, say there is no one at the table speaking exclusively for the most vulnerable people in the province, the ones for whom food banks have had to become necessary.

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

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He works primarily for the St. John's Morning Show, and contributes to television and digital programming.

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