On September 30, Canadian Food Studies released a special issue on building an integrated food policy for Canada. Featured in this issue is Tacking household food insecurity: An essential goal of a national food policy by Naomi Dachner and PROOF Principal Investigator, Valerie Tarasuk. In this publication, authors explore the social epidemiology and health impacts of household food insecurity in Canada, the evidence base for policy intervention, and the role of a national food policy in driving meaningful action on food insecurity across multiple sectors and all levels of government.
On August 21, 2018, Minister Duclos released Opportunity for All – Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy. The Strategy introduced an Official Poverty Line for Canada and announced targets for poverty reduction based on this measure. As part of the Strategy, the federal government will develop an online dashboard of indicators to publicly track progress on selected measures of poverty. Food insecurity is included as one of these indicators. This inclusion will highlight the importance of regularly monitoring and reporting on data from the Household Food Security Survey Module. Food insecurity’s role in the Strategy is an important step forward in the federal government’s recognition of food insecurity as a measure of material deprivation that is sensitive to social policies aimed at poverty reduction.
The full Strategy document can be accessed here.
Evidence Exchange Network has produced a new research resource to synthesize Tarasuk et al’s paper from the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, The relation between food insecurity and mental health service utilization in Ontario.
New op-ed from PROOF’s Dr. Catherine Mah discussing the cancellation of Ontario’s basic income pilot. Originally published in The Conversation on August 2, 2018.
Ontario’s minister of children, community and social services just announced that the Canadian province’s landmark basic income pilot project would be terminated. Lisa MacLeod did not offer an alternative for moving forward, apart from a vague mention of a “better plan in 100 days.”
The project has been running since April 2017. It reached full enrolment with 4,000 residents receiving the basic income payment in three communities: the Hamilton area, the Thunder Bay area and Lindsay. More than 2,000 additional individuals are volunteering as participants in the study without receiving monthly payments. They are helping to serve as a comparison group, to measure the differential effects for those in the program.
The Ontario pilot had already diverged to some extent from other models of basic income programs. A “full” basic income model is universal. It is based on the principle of targeting all individuals in a community unconditionally, regardless of income, without clawbacks.
Participants in Ontario received up to $16,989 per year for a single person, less 50 per cent of any earned income. Couples received $24,027 per year, less 50 per cent of any earned income. Up to an additional $6,000 per year was provided for a person with a disability.
MacLeod later admitted that the cancellation of the pilot was a broken campaign promise. In rationalizing the decision, she explained that the program was a disincentive to participants becoming “independent contributors to the economy.” She went on: “We want to get people back on track and be productive members of society where that’s possible.”
This is poppycock.
Caring about the economy and society means caring about the outcome of the basic income pilot.
The Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s decision is ignorant of the considerable thought and analysis on basic income as a promising policy solution for improving lives and strengthening the economy, ideas that come from the right and the left.
One of the best proxies that we have for understanding the effects of a basic income policy from an economic perspective in Canada is the guaranteed income received by seniors.
As part of the PROOF program of research led by Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto, we have been studying the effect of policies and public programs to address food insecurity and its detrimental effects on health.
At the University of Calgary, Herb Emery and Lynn McIntyre studied the effect of a basic income guarantee on seniors’ food insecurity and health. Remarkably, they found that food insecurity rates drop by half at people’s 65th birthday as a result of seniors’ income supports.
The research team also compared seniors’ guaranteed income with conditional income assistance programs. They found that the income guarantee is beneficial to both physical and mental health, functioning in a way similar to wages.
Addressing poverty through a basic income is not just “the right thing to do.” It also strengthens households’ contribution to the economy. As Emery and McIntyre stated in their policy paper (emphasis added):
What is often not well understood is the efficiency case for addressing the root causes of poverty, and that poverty itself is a symptom of market failure. Symptoms of poverty, such as homelessness or household food insecurity, in this context, are not solely the product of an inadequate income level, but instead a lack of consumption insurance to address budget shocks — unexpected decreases in income or purchasing power of income. The ability to buffer against budget shocks, to maintain consumption levels when the budget is unexpectedly constrained, is a product of a surplus in the budget or the adjustable discretionary expenditure, and access to credit or assets.
In other words, people with more income don’t just have more money to spend. They can also maintain their purchasing power through hard times. They can stay their course as consumers —and keep spending, in the economy —even when unexpected household expenses arise, as they always do.
If the effect on private consumption isn’t convincing enough, PROOF research by Tarasuk and others has examined how poverty and food insecurity are associated with many other adverse health consequences that increase government expenditures for health care, a serious economic concern in Ontario and elsewhere.
Total annual health-care costs for severely food-insecure households are more than double those that are food secure.
The evidence to date is that a basic income guarantee can be an effective strategy to reduce food insecurity and improve health outcomes, saving public dollars. The evaluation of the Ontario pilot would have offered crucial evidence to help us further examine this promising strategy.
Hugh Segal, former Conservative senator and voice of clarity on basic income in Canada, soundly denounced the cancellation of the pilot. His earlier discussion paper for Ontario was evidence-informed and practical.
Segal summarized the economic case for the pilot, and for addressing inadequate income, in his Globe and Mail op-ed:
It is obvious that a failure to reduce the gap between rich and poor is a threat to a balanced economic model that accommodates growth, investment, profits and equality of opportunity. … Looking at the cost of the pilot project is fair enough – but frankly, simplistic.
We don’t need simplistic approaches to pressing societal issues. We need ways forward that best protect the vitality of our economies as well as the people and communities who participate in them. We need thoughtful policy-making based on good evidence, and the Ontario decision robs us of that.
The latest data from the 2015-2016 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) demonstrate that household food insecurity remains a serious problem in Canada, with the prevalence ranging from 10.2% in British Columbia to 50.8% in Nunavut. The rates are even more alarming when we look at the number of children in food insecure households, with at least 1 in 6 children living in a home that struggles to put food on the table.
This cycle of the CCHS was the first to use a new research design that updated the way Statistics Canada selects households to participate in the survey. This change ensures better representation of the population, especially in smaller places, but it also means that these estimates cannot be compared to previous years. Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, and Yukon opted out of food insecurity measurement in 2015-2016, but for the provinces and territories with measurements, this survey sets a new baseline by which to monitor household food insecurity in years to come. PROOF looks forward to sharing more of the data in our comprehensive report on food insecurity in 2015-2016, planned for release in Fall 2018.
The case for more comprehensive data on household food insecurity
Tarasuk V, Li T, Mitchell A, Dachner N.
Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada 2018; 38(5):210-213.
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Tarasuk et al. review the existing state of household food insecurity measurement in Canada and propose changes to close critical gaps in the monitoring and reporting of food insecurity. Key recommendations of the commentary include: reporting the total number of individuals living in food insecure households; recognizing and measuring marginal food insecurity; making local level food insecurity data more available; and mandating the assessment of household food insecurity on all cycles of the Canadian Community Health Survey.
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.
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.
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.
The full-time temporary position is for one (1) year, with the possibility of extension subject to satisfactory performance evaluations.
Competitive salary equalling or exceeding CIHR fellowship stipends, plus benefits. Actual salary will depend on the candidate’s experience, qualifications and progress.
– 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
– 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
– 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
Please send your application to Dr. Valerie Tarasuk (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.