Food waste and food insecurity in Canada –
Diverting food waste to charitable food programs will not address food insecurity in Canada

By Naomi Dachner & Valerie Tarasuk

This article was first published in Policy Options.


As people recognize the magnitude of food waste and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, interest in finding ways to reduce food waste, globally and in Canada, is escalating. A private member’s Bill (it was defeated) was introduced in February 2016 to support the development of a national strategy to reduce food waste in Canada, and the National Zero Waste Council continues to take leadership in advocating for the reduction of food waste and Canada’s carbon emissions through its proposed National Food Waste Reduction Strategy. Waste reduction is also being discussed at the provincial/territorial level (e.g., Addressing Food and Organic Waste in Ontario).

Embedded in these proposals are the assumptions that measures are required to promote the donation of edible food waste by the private sector to food and other community organizations and that food waste can be used effectively to address problems of hunger and food insecurity. Both claims are seriously misguided. While corporate food waste definitely should be reduced, it is questionable how much of the edible food currently going into landfills could and would be salvaged if there was more donation of unsaleable products to food banks and other charitable food organizations. Furthermore, food banks — ad hoc, voluntary organizations that collect and redistribute donated foods to those “in need” — cannot address the large and growing problem of household food insecurity.

Food industry and food charity

For more than 30 years, charitable food assistance providers have been forging partnerships with food producers, manufacturers and retailers to collect edible “leftovers” for their clients. Most provinces and territories now have Good Samaritan legislation to absolve corporate donors of liability for the health and safety of food donated to food banks. This legislation frees the food industry to donate products that do not comply with the standards applied to food retail and food service operations in Canada. Corporations are currently able to write donated food off as a loss, while benefiting financially from savings on disposal costs and garnering public goodwill from their generous support of food charities. Measures to stimulate increased donations to charitable food programs are not needed. Even proponents of corporate tax credits, such as Food Banks Canada, acknowledge that the introduction of such credits would reward corporations for current practices, but would not lead to dramatic increases in food donations. The situation in the United States is also instructive, as American corporations have been receiving tax credits for food waste donations to charities since the 1970s, with little evidence of any meaningful impact on either food insecurity or food waste. An estimated 32 million tonnes of food are wasted each year in the US, but donations to Feeding America (the national food bank network) diverted only 3.7 percent of this food to charitable programs in 2014. Moreover, despite extensive investments in public and charitable food assistance programs, food insecurity in the US is more than double that in Canada.

Household food insecurity in Canada and food charity

Nearly 13 percent of households in Canada, or more than 4 million individuals, experience food insecurity — insecure or inadequate access to food due to financial constraints. This represents an increase of more than 600,000 individuals between 2007 and 2012. Household food insecurity is tightly linked to low household income. It erodes people’s health, setting the stage for a host of mental and physical health problems. Food-insecure individuals are less able to manage chronic health conditions and they consume 2.5 times the health care dollars of those who are food secure. It is a public health problem that requires immediate government attention (figure 1).

Food banks, the chief mode of food charity in Canada and the target of proposed waste reduction initiatives, are incapable of addressing the problems of food insecurity. Research consistently shows that only about one-quarter of food-insecure households use food banks; most do not, and those who do are not rendered food-secure. While receiving food charity may diminish hunger in the short term, this is a far cry from food security; that is, being able to meet future food needs independently. Getting a free bag of food isn’t enough to achieve this. This also holds true for charitable meal and snack programs.

Bar graph of food bank use in March vs food insecurity prevalence for years 2007, 2008, 2011 & 2012, demonstrating the much greater number of food insecure households than food bank users

Food banks lack the capacity to meet even the short-term needs of those who seek their assistance. Their operations are completely dependent on donations, so what they have to give out is simply what they were given. It is routine for food banks to restrict the amount and frequency of food assistance given to any one household and to report having to cut back on the amount of food they distribute because demand exceeds supply. The help food banks provide is nowhere near enough to change households’ abilities to meet their basic needs. Most food banks are also limited by lack of funding and limited staff resources. They and other charitable food programs are heavily dependent on volunteer labour; volunteers are responsible for receiving, sorting, parcelling, storing and distributing food. Furthermore, most food banks operate only one to two days a week, and many are reliant on donated space. Most are operating at full capacity to provide as much safe food as they can to their clients. Channelling more surplus food would further tax an already fragile system.

Operating outside of the normative food safety legislation means that food banks have had to develop and institute practices to deliver safe food. They literally have to “get their hands dirty” going through donated foodstuffs to discard inedible waste and sort the remaining food into stages of freshness, so that it’s stored and distributed appropriately. Charitable food assistance programs also bear the costs of disposing of donated foodstuffs that cannot be distributed. Increasing the volume of surplus food donations that are exempt from the usual food safety standards will increase the burden on voluntary organizations to manage this food. It will heighten the need for well-trained volunteers to separate edible from inedible food; increase the volume of food waste that these agencies must dispose of; and possibly pose an increased food safety risk to food bank users.

In summary, while incentives to increase the distribution of edible food waste through community-based charitable food assistance programs might seem like an effective way to reduce corporate food waste and also help food-insecure Canadians, the evidence does not support this proposition. Charitable food assistance is incapable of improving households’ food security because it does nothing to address the root cause of food insecurity — the lack of money underlying the struggle to put food on the table. Scaling up food charity will not change this fundamental limitation. Moreover, because food banks are already functioning at capacity, they cannot handle more “surplus” food donations without also receiving an infusion of resources to expand their food handling, storage and disposal facilities and to substantially increase their labour force.

Public investments to expand food bank infrastructure are indefensible given the ineffectiveness of this system in reducing food insecurity. The evidence is clear: The reduction of food insecurity requires policy interventions that will improve the financial circumstances of very-low-income households.

Opportunity: Post-Doctoral Fellowship In the Epidemiology of Food Insecurity

Dr. Valerie Tarasuk at the Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto and Dr. Marcelo Urquia at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP), University of Manitoba invite applications for a post-doctoral fellowship in the Epidemiology of Food Insecurity and Health. The successful applicant will join a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)-funded multidisciplinary team of accomplished researchers in Manitoba, Ontario and the US, with an interest in studying the determinants of household food insecurity and its implications for health and well-being. The research approach involves the analysis of large and unique linked health and social administrative databases housed at MCHP in Winnipeg, the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) in Toronto, Ontario, and the Statistics Canada Research Data Centres in these cities. The postdoctoral fellow will be required to work for at least 3 months at MCHP during year 1, but otherwise may be based in either Toronto or Winnipeg. The fellow will be jointly supervised by Drs. Valerie Tarasuk and Marcelo Urquia.

The ideal candidate will have the experience and expertise to take advantage of the opportunity to access novel and rich data to build a highly productive applied research portfolio. The fellow will be able to attend seminars, colloquia, and other regularly scheduled research activities at the partner institutions, and present in domestic and international conferences.

Term:
The full-time temporary position is for one (1) year, with the possibility of extension subject to satisfactory performance evaluations.

Salary:
Competitive salary equalling or exceeding CIHR fellowship stipends, plus benefits. Actual salary will depend on the candidate’s experience, qualifications and progress.

Minimum qualifications:
– PhD, ScD, DrPH, or an equivalent doctoral degree in epidemiology, biostatistics, public health, nutritional sciences, economics, or related fields, completed within the last 5 years
– Experience conducting statistical analyses with large databases using SAS, Stata, or R

Preferred qualifications:
– Track record of research productivity
– Track record of, or strong potential for, independent funding
– Knowledge of food insecurity, social determinants of health, poverty and social policy

Duties:

– Conduct data analyses at MCHP in Winnipeg, ICES in Toronto, and the Statistics Canada Research Data Centres in these locations.
– Lead and co-author manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals
– Critically contribute to the team efforts
– Actively participate in knowledge-transfer activities
– Perform limited administrative tasks
– Apply to external funding sources as eligible

To apply:

Please send your application to Dr. Valerie Tarasuk (valerie.tarasuk@utoronto.ca) as a single PDF file.
Application materials include i) a one-page cover letter describing career goals, research interests, and reasons for applying; ii) your CV and graduate degree transcripts; iii) a reprint of your most significant first-author publication; iv) contact information for three (3) references; and v) proof of proficiency in English for candidates whose original language is not English, if applicable.

Review of applications will begin on December 1, 2017. Expected start date is March 1 2018 or shortly thereafter, although this timing is flexible. The position will remain open until a suitable candidate is found.

All applications are welcome but only potential candidates will be contacted.

The University of Toronto is strongly committed to diversity within its community and especially welcomes applications from racialized persons / persons of colour, women, Indigenous / Aboriginal People of North America, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ persons, and others who may contribute to the further diversification of ideas.

[PDF copy]

2 New PROOF Publications Examining Housing and Food Insecurity in Latest Volume of Canadian Journal of Public Health

A natural experimental study of the protective effect of home ownership on household food insecurity in Canada before and after a recession (2008–2009)
McIntyre L, Wu X, Kwok C, Emery H (2017)
Canadian Journal of Public Health 2017; 108(2), e135–e144. [Abstract]

McIntrye et al. used population data to examine the effect of the economic recession of 2008-09 on food insecurity among homeowners and renters. The authors found that the recession increased the vulnerability of renters to food insecurity but had no impact on homeowners. The results of this paper indicate a reduced ability among renters to weather financial shocks.

High vulnerability to household food insecurity in a sample of Canadian renter households in government-subsidized housing
Fafard St-Germain AA, Tarasuk V (2017)
Canadian Journal of Public Health 2017; 108(2), e129–e134. [Abstract]

Fafard St-Germain and Tarasuk examined the prevalence and severity of household food insecurity in a sample of households living in government-subsidized housing across the ten provinces. The study results show that half of the households were food insecure, with 1 in 4 experiencing moderate food insecurity and 1 in 5 experiencing severe food insecurity. Greater income was associated with lower risk of food insecurity, suggesting that income support is needed to reduce food insecurity among households living in government-subsidized housing.

Prevalence of Household Food Insecurity Among Households Living in Government-Subsidized Housing.

New Publication: The household food insecurity gradient and potential reductions in adverse population mental health outcomes in Canadian adults

The household food insecurity gradient and potential reductions in adverse population mental health outcomes in Canadian adults
Jessiman-Perreault G, McIntyre L (2017)
SSM-Population Health 2017; 3: 464-472.
[Free Full Text]

This study furthers our understanding of the relationship between household food insecurity and poor mental health by examining the relationship between the severity of household food insecurity and six mental health outcomes in a large pooled sample of adults (18-64 years old) drawn from the Canadian Community Health Survey (n=302,683). The mental health conditions under study included: major depressive episodes in the past year, depressive thoughts in the past month, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, self-reported mental health status and suicidal thoughts in the past year.

Percent and 95% Confidence Intervals of Six Adverse Mental Health Outcomes Reported for Each Level of Household Food Insecurity (Unadjusted Prevalence).

Findings showed a food insecurity gradient across each of the adverse mental health outcomes – the odds of reporting an outcome increased with the severity of food insecurity. The odds of reporting mental health conditions among adults in severely food insecure households were very high (25.5% to 41.1%, depending on the condition), and the researchers calculated that a decrease of between 8.1% and 16.0% in the reporting of these mental health outcomes would accrue if those who were severely food insecure became food secure. The results of this study suggest that macro-level policy interventions that reduce the severity of food insecurity, particularly severe food insecurity, could reduce mental ill-health burden.