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.

Provinces and Territories Opting Out of Measuring Household Food Insecurity

In 2015 and 2016, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon chose not to monitor food insecurity. As a result, there will be no national estimates for those years. It is critical that every province and territory measure household food security in order to make evidence-based policy decisions about this important public health problem

Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) The inclusion of the Household Food Security Survey Module (HFSSM) on the annual cycles of Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) has enabled the monitoring of food insecurity in Canada. However, the HFSSM is not always mandatory. We recently learned that the measurement of food insecurity on the CCHS was optional in 2015 and 2016, and Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Yukon opted out. As a result, it is not possible to accurately estimate the prevalence of household food insecurity nationally for those years. The most recent national estimate available is from 2012 when the HFSSM was mandatory for all jurisdictions. We know that food insecurity rose significantly between 2007 and 2012, but cannot reliably determine whether the problem has gotten better or worse since then. The next national assessment of food insecurity will be in 2017. This gap in data impedes research on trends in food insecurity and the impact of public policies on the problem. It is critical that provinces and territories participate in all cycles of measurement.


Ontario

OntarioOntario is the most populous jurisdiction in Canada and home to the single largest number of food insecure households. Ontario’s decision to opt out of measurement has serious consequences for analyses of trends in food insecurity, limiting our ability to see the impact of policy changes over this period. The lack of data for 2015 and 2016 also has ramifications for the assessment of the recently announced Ontario Food Security Strategy and Ontario Basic Income Pilot. Until now, Ontario has participated in monitoring in every cycle since the inclusion of the module on the CCHS in 2005.


Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland and LabradorIn addition to opting out of measurement in 2015 and 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador opted out in 2013 and 2014, meaning there are no data for this province beyond 2012. A substantial decrease in food insecurity among social assistance recipients in Newfoundland and Labrador was observed between 2007 and 2012, following the rollout of their poverty reduction strategy in 2006. However, due to the lack of data it is not possible to examine the impact of subsequent policy changes.


Yukon

YukonYukon is the only territory to have ever opted out of food insecurity monitoring on the CCHS, having previously opted out in 2005, 2013, and 2014. From the most recent estimates from 2012, 17.1% of households in Yukon are food insecure and 1 in 5 children are affected. But, we have no way of knowing whether this problem has gotten better or worse since then.


Regular monitoring of household food insecurity is fundamental to population research and evidence-based policy decision making in Canada. The lack of comprehensive, up-to-date statistics is detrimental to efforts to address this serious public health problem. Food insecurity measurement needs to become mandatory annually in all provinces and territories.

For more information on the measurement of food insecurity in Canada, please see our Monitoring Food Insecurity in Canada fact sheet and our annual reports.

Upcoming webinar – How does food insecurity relate to health and what are the implications for health care providers? (May 18/17 1:00-2:30 EST)

Upcoming webinar - How does food insecurity relate to health and what are the implications for health care providers? (May18/17 1:00-2:30 EST)

On May 18, 2017 from 1:00 – 2:30 pm EST, PROOF is co-hosting the third and final webinar in their series with Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada (CDPAC). To see recordings of the first two, visit: http://proof.utoronto.ca/resources/webinar/#past

Register today at: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6830617413940098051. A recording of the webinar will be available afterwards.

Upcoming webinar – How does food insecurity relate to health and what are the implications for health care providers?

Please join PROOF and CDPAC for the final webinar in their series on household food insecurity. In this webinar, we will examine evidence of the impact of food insecurity on individuals’ mental and physical health and the financial burden food insecurity poses for our healthcare system. Although food insecurity is associated with dietary compromise, its effects on health extend beyond those associated with poor nutrition. We will discuss the complex relationship between food insecurity and health, considering the evidence of a bidirectional relationship for some conditions and disentangling the relation between food insecurity and malnutrition. Finally, we will examine the implications of this body of research for practice, particularly considering the challenges that arise in providing care to patients who are experiencing food insecurity.

Presenters:
Valerie Tarasuk, PhD, Professor, University of Toronto and PROOF principal investigator
Lynn McIntyre, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, FCAHS, Professor Emerita, University of Calgary and PROOF investigator
Carlota Basualdo-Hammond, MSc, MPH, RD, Executive Director, Nutrition Services, Alberta Health Services

Upcoming webinar – Who is vulnerable to household food insecurity and what does this mean for policy and practice? (April 13/17 1:00-2:30 EST)

Upcoming webinar - Who is vulnerable to household food insecurity and what does this mean for policy and practice? (April 13/17 1:00-2:30 EST)

On April 13, 2017 from 1:00 – 2:30 pm EST, PROOF is co-hosting a webinar with Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada (CDPAC) on what drives vulnerability to household food insecurity in Canada

Register today at: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/7992737431982570755. A recording of the webinar will be available afterwards.

Who is vulnerable to household food insecurity and what does this mean for policy and practice?

Please join PROOF and CDPAC for a second webinar on household food insecurity. In this webinar, we will delve into the question of what drives vulnerability to household food insecurity in Canada. Drawing on the wealth of Canadian data collected during more than a decade of food insecurity monitoring, we will examine the social and economic circumstances of food insecure households and look at what has been found to underpin changes in household food insecurity status over time. We will also discuss the relationship between food insecurity and health, considering the evidence of a bidirectional relationship for some conditions. The interpretation of these findings by Dietitians of Canada in their recent Position Statement and Recommendations – Addressing Household Food Insecurity in Canada will also be shared as a platform for policy and practice recommendations.

Presenters:
Valerie Tarasuk, PhD, Professor, University of Toronto and PROOF principal investigator
Lynn McIntyre, MD, MHSc, FRCPC, FCAHS, Professor Emerita, University of Calgary and PROOF investigator
Pat Vanderkooy, MSc, RD, Public Affairs Manager, Dietitians of Canada

New Research & Factsheet: Food Procurement, Food Skills & Food Insecurity

PROOF has recently published a new study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, looking at the extent that food skills and garden use relate to household food insecurity in Canada. This new PROOF factsheet summarizes some of the findings from this study.

Listen to PROOF Principal Investigator, Valerie Tarasuk, discuss the findings and importance of this research.(5 minutes) [Download MP3]

For more information about this research, please see: Huisken, A., Orr, S. K., & Tarasuk, V. (2017). Adults’ food skills and use of gardens are not associated with household food insecurity in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 107(6), e526-e532. [Abstract]

To see our other factsheets on food insecurity in Canada, visit http://proof.utoronto.ca/resources/fact-sheets.

Download Factsheet: [PDF] [PNG]

Click to download PDF
Fact Sheet: Food Procurement, Food Skills & Food Insecurity

Upcoming: Food Banks? A Panel Discussion – Toronto, Ontario (April 6, 2017)

Banner: Food Banks. What do they do now? What can they do in the near future? What can’t they do? What can we do?


UPDATE: The panel discussion will now also be livestreamed at: https://ryecast.ryerson.ca/78/live/1601.aspx, starting at 7:00pm ET. A recording of the event will also be available afterwards.


Thursday, April 6, 2017
6:30 PM to 9:00 PM
Ryerson University, 80 Gould Street, Rogers Communications Centre, RCC204

Join as a panel of outstanding experts and activists talk through the complex pros, cons, and to-dos of food banks. All points of view welcomed and respected.

Welcome by:
Fiona Yeudall, Director, Ryerson Centre for Studies in Food Security

Chaired by:
Councillor Joe Mihevc, Chair, Toronto Board of Health

With guest panelists:
Andy Fisher, Author of the controversial new book from MIT Press: Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Available April 21, 2017. Pre-order the book now from Amazon.ca
Valerie Tarasuk, Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto, Principal Investigator, PROOF
Cecilia Rocha, Director, Ryerson School of Nutrition
Ryan Noble, Executive Director, North York Harvest Food Bank
Merryn Maynard, Program Coordinator, Meal Exchange

Closing Remarks by:
Melana Roberts, Chair, Toronto Youth Food Policy Council

Hosted by:
Ryerson University’s School Of Nutrition and Centre For Studies in Food Security
Endorsed by:
New College Global Food Equity Initiative, North York Harvest Food Bank, Toronto Food Policy Council, Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, Stop Community Food Centre

Poster: Food Banks. What do they do now? What can they do in the near future? What can’t they do? What can we do?

Upcoming webinar – Food Insecurity Measurement in Canada: Interpreting the Statistics (Feb 8/17 1:00-2:30 EST)

Upcoming webinar - Food Insecurity Measurement in Canada: Interpreting the Statistics (Feb 8/17 1:00-2:30 EST)

On February 8, 2017 from 1:00 – 2:30 pm EST, PROOF is co-hosting a webinar with Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada (CDPAC) on food insecurity measurement and statistics. For more information and to register, please visit: http://www.cdpac.ca/content.php?doc=369. A recording of the webinar will be available afterwards.

Food Insecurity Measurement in Canada: Interpreting the Statistics

Food insecurity – the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints – is increasingly recognized as a serious public health problem. Since 2005, household food insecurity has been systematically monitored in Canada through the Canadian Community Health Survey run by Statistics Canada.

The growing use of these data by public health, community agencies, research centres, and social policy groups has been critical in building awareness and understanding of the problem of food insecurity. However, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the reporting of data on food insecurity mask the scale and severity of this problem. The accurate and effective use of Canada’s monitoring data hinges on a clear understanding of what exactly is being measured on the Canadian Community Health Survey, what it means, and how to interpret the food insecurity statistics available on Statistics Canada’s website (CANSIM). Anyone interested in using food insecurity statistics or learning about how food insecurity is monitored in Canada is encouraged to join.

Presenters:
Valerie Tarasuk, PhD – Professor at University of Toronto and principal investigator of PROOF
Suzanne Galesloot, MSA, RD – Public Health Nutrition Provincial Lead at Alberta Health Services
Tracy Woloshyn, RD – Public Health Nutritionist at York Region Public Health