Hi I’m Tim Li, the Research Program Coordinator of PROOF, a research program studying effective policy interventions for food insecurity at the University of Toronto.
Household food insecurity is the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. It is a serious public health problem in Canada that negatively impacts physical, mental, and social health. Based on our most recent national estimates from 2017-2018, over 4 million Canadians lived in food-insecure households.
Although food insecurity is measured by asking households about their experiences of food deprivation – from worrying about not having enough money to buy food to going whole days without eating due to a lack of money – food insecurity actually tells us about how dire these households’ financial circumstances are.
We’ve known for a while that Black households in Canada are more likely to be food-insecure than white households, but there hasn’t been any examination of population survey data to explore the role of race and racism in food insecurity until now.
Welcome to a special podcast presentation on our new study, “Black–white racial disparities in household food insecurity from 2005 to 2014, Canada”, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. This is the first study to examine the differences in food insecurity among Black and white households in Canada and was a collaboration with FoodShare, a leading food justice organization.
As Paul Taylor, the Executive Director of FoodShare, explains, the relationship between food insecurity and race had never been the focus of in-depth investigation, despite the awareness that Black Canadians are disproportionately affected by food insecurity.
You know, one of the things that I reflect on is that much of the mention of Black folks when it comes to food insecurity, I feel like we’re often footnotes – “and this population is disproportionately affected” – and it’s astounding to think that, you know, we couldn’t find any research that suggests that people were interested in interrogating that further and understanding what’s happening for Black Canadians – who they are, what are the policy opportunities to support folks who we know had already been made most vulnerable to food insecurity, as a result of our system.
So I’m really taken by that and the fact that we continue to show up as footnotes but never inspire action, so I think that’s one of the things that really excited me about working with PROOF was not just the curiosity, but the willingness to interrogate this issue further and understand what the opportunities were to support Black Canadians.
I spoke with Simran Dhunna, the lead author of this study, to learn more about the research and findings.
One of our main findings is, of course, that being Black is an overriding factor that shapes risk and vulnerability to food insecurity in Canada. And in order to actually get to that finding we had to pool data from the Canadian Community health survey from 2005 to 2014.
And previously there weren’t really any focus studies on this issue, we know that it’s a very small sample size and race-based data collection, which we’ll talk about, is poor in this country, but with almost a sample size of 500,000 what we found at the end of our analyses was that – surprise, surprise – the weighted prevalence of household food insecurity was 10% for white households and 28.4% for Black households.
And it is especially concerning that 36.6% – over a third – of Black children live in a food-insecure household, compared to 12.4% for white children. Food insecurity leaves a long-lasting mark on children’s wellbeing. We know experiencing food insecurity at an early age is associated with childhood mental health problems and that experiences of severe food insecurity in childhood also increase the risk of developing depression and suicidal ideation later in life.
Clearly Black households are at a disadvantage and when we then actually looked at the odds of Black households being food insecure compared to their white counterparts. It was 3.56 so they were 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure if you didn’t adjust for household socio demographic variables, but when we did adjust for things like, you know, immigration, income and all of these other variables that are been had been identified in the literature that odds dropped to 1.88. That’s about two times greater odds of being household food insecure if you’re Black.
This is a case where even when you account for all of these other variables, being Black or racialized as Black is very strong variable. But where we really drove that conclusion home is when we looked at models within those Black subgroups based on immigration or household type or education and what we found is that within white subgroups for those types of variables, there was a lot of heterogeneity. When we looked within Black households with regards to those variables, there was actually a lot more homogeneity than we thought.
That means that when we analyzed the relationship between food insecurity and different socioeconomic factors for Black households, we didn’t see the same differences in probability of food insecurity that we are used to seeing, based on household composition, immigration status, education, and province of residence.
For household composition, in our previous research that hadn’t looked at race, we saw distinct differences in the probability of food insecurity for different kinds of households. Households with children, especially those led by single mothers, were more likely to be food insecure.
We see that pattern continue for the white households in this study, but for Black households, it’s a different story. Black households of different household compositions were all more likely to be food-insecure than their white counterparts, but also didn’t differ from each other – whether it’s a couple with no children, or a family led by single mother.
We also did not find any difference in the likelihood of food insecurity for Black households based on immigrant status. Although most of the food-insecure Black households in Canada are immigrants, Canadian-born Black households are as likely to be food-insecure.
Previous research has consistently shown that households with higher levels of education are less likely to be food insecure, but when we look at this through the lens of race, we see that higher education doesn’t have a protective effect against food insecurity for Black households like it does white households.
You know, we often hear in the narrative around people who are considered poor or low income – “well you know what, if they just got a better education, if they went to post secondary school, if they had a full family, a mom and a dad in the household, if they just earned a little bit more money, you know, if they weren’t immigrants, they wouldn’t be in this situation”. So I think really what your research does is it really combats that narrative that really stigmatizes low income folks, Black communities, to say, you know, if you just made these changes, if you just worked a little harder, when in fact the systems are stacked against these communities.
That was Melana Roberts, Chair of Food Secure Canada and a member of the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council, who are advising on the National Food Policy.
Some variables did still matter, like homeownership. What we’ve seen from previous research is that households who own their homes are less likely to be food insecure than those who rent. Homeownership typically indicates greater health and can also provide an asset to borrow against in times of unexpected financial shock.
This remains the case with Black homeowners being less likely to be food-insecure than Black renters, but there was a marked difference when we compare the probability between Black and white homeowners.
The predicted probability of food insecurity for Black homeowners was about 14%, which is the same as white renters and almost twice the probability for white homeowners. These findings still show that homeownership is protective against food insecurity, but not all homeownership is the same.
It’s possible that Black households that are owning their home actually may be dealing with fundamentally different circumstances — maybe more mortgage debt, more racism in the housing market. And that’s why they end up having the same level of vulnerability to food insecurity as white renters. So it really gives a complicated picture of how race interplays with some of the socio demographic variables that have been previously looked at in the literature for household food insecurity and that ultimately being racialized as Black is a very, very strong factor that’s shaping this vulnerability.
I spoke with Dr. Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain who led a study into the relationship between homeownership and food insecurity to explore what might be underlying the racial disparity. I asked her about her research on why some homeowners are more likely to be food insecure than others and what that might says about this new study.
Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain
In recent studies that we’ve done, we look actually to break apart those homeowners. Not all homeowners are actually equally vulnerable to food insecurity. What we’ve learned in that study using data from 2010 is that having a mortgage and the value of your home actually matters also in terms of your vulnerability to food insecurity.
So when we combine the information about whether or not a homeowner’s had a mortgage and the value of their home, what we realized, or what we observed, is that the odds of food insecurity were the same between renters and homeowners with a mortgage and a low housing asset, and so we define low housing asset as a home that is worth less than $120,000 in 2010. So really we saw a bit of a graded relationship. Renters had the same odds of food security as owners with a mortgage and a low housing asset, and then the other types of owners, whether they had a mortgage and higher value of housing assets, had lower odds of food insecurity.
We repeatedly see that renters are more likely to be food-insecure than homeowners, but as Andrée-Anne described, not all homeownership is equal. The financial burden of paying off a mortgage could mean less money left over for other basic needs like food and contribute to food insecurity. And people who can only afford to buy lower value homes because of lower incomes and fewer savings are likely to be more vulnerable to financial hardships.
Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain
And so, how can this relate to this paper? While the data that was used for this study looking at Black and white respondents in Canada doesn’t have information about whether homeowners have a mortgage or the value of their house, but seeing that white respondent that are renting their households have the same vulnerability to food insecurity as Black respondents that own their home the question is, is it possible that those homeowners are not as protected from food insecurity, because they have a mortgage? And also, maybe they own house that is of lower value? So both of these factors would increase their vulnerability to food insecurity.
And based on what we know from broader literature and data in Canada, we know that Black families tend to have more precarious work and also have lower wages. And both of these factors would affect whether they have a lot of savings to buy a house – so if you have lower savings, you need to have a higher mortgage but also if you don’t have higher of an income, you can’t access a home that as worth as much.
So this is an hypothesis, we would need more data to be able to explore it or that’s the case or not, but that could be one reason why Black respondents who are homeowners have the same vulnerability as white respondents that are renters.
And as Andrée-Anne says, homeownership status could be an indicator of wealth or lack thereof. The higher vulnerability of food insecurity among Black homeowners compared to white homeowners could reflect other aspects of their financial circumstances. At the end of the day, food insecurity is about not having enough money to afford enough food. Income is a huge driver, but job security, savings, debt, and assets also contribute to a household’s economic situation and whether there are enough resources – enough money at the end of the day – to meet their basic needs.
Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain
The other reality is that the role of ownership in relationship to food insecurity is probably in part due to the type of homeownership so the debt and the value of the home but there’s also probably other unknown economic circumstances that play a role in that and they’re just unmeasured, right?
So like the effect of homeownership may be representative of other circumstances that we’re not capturing for these households and, in this case, so, for example, if we were able to come to account for the type of work that the white versus Black respondents have maybe suddenly the difference in the vulnerability would change between renters and homeowners and between white renters and Black homeowners.
So if we were able to account for more of the differences of how Black and white households differ in Canada, maybe this would play out a bit differently. I think the role of ownership captures not just homeownership but other economic circumstances that shape how much savings you have.
Another difference that really stands out between Black and white households is the probability of food insecurity among households relying on seniors’ incomes as their main source of income – which includes public or private pensions, retirement savings, dividends or interest. Since we started monitoring food insecurity in Canada we’ve seen a far lower prevalence among households relying on seniors’ incomes, the lowest rate in fact.
Much of this has to do with the success of our public pension programs at insulating low-income seniors from food insecurity. We have research showing that the risk of food insecurity for a low-income Canadian drops by over half when they turn 65 and become eligible for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement – programs that provide more stable incomes, far more than what they would’ve received on welfare.
In this study, we continued to see that Black households relying on seniors’ incomes were less likely to be food-insecure – seniors’ incomes still provide a protective effect compared to other sources of income like wages, salaries, or self employment, EI, or social assistance for Black households,
But we also found that the benefit of seniors’ incomes is not equal for everyone. Comparing the probability of food insecurity for Black households and white households reliant on seniors’ incomes, we saw that Black households were more likely to be food insecure.
Economic circumstances are huge driver and force behind how household food insecurity manifests. This was a really important factor to look at and with regards to senior’s income for both Black and white households, when we look at within those racial categories, seniors’ income has a protective effect.
However, when we actually look at the probability of Black households on seniors’ income and compare that with their white counterparts, we can actually see that the probability of food insecurity of Black households on seniors’ income actually matched that of white households reliant on income from wages and salaries.
And that means Black households reliant on seniors’ incomes are more likely to be food insecure than white household also relying seniors’ incomes – 2 times as likely in fact.
If you’re Black in adult age, and you’re a working household reliant on wages, salaries ,or self employment, whatever those circumstances are in your adulthood, they actually carry through, as we speculate, when you’re a senior. So it’s not as if you suddenly are on seniors income and you’ve caught up to your white counterparts and racism is gone right? People don’t live lives like that.
And so in our article, the way that we explain that is that it’s possible that Black seniors just acquire fewer material assets during their working lives. There’s a lot of research to show that Black people are much more disadvantaged in the job market, they are much more disproportionately represented in precarious, low wage work. It’s that economic disadvantage that followed them into their old age.
A recent report by the Canadian Centres for Policy Alternatives titled Colour-coded Retirement: An intersectional analysis of retirement income and savings in Canada, lends support for this potential explanation. It found that Black seniors had less income than white seniors.
Fewer Black seniors had private retirement savings and for those who did, they had less because of smaller contributions during their working years. While we still see indications that Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement play a critical role for reducing food insecurity for low-income seniors, it’s clear that white seniors are better off financially in retirement and therefore considerably less likely to be food insecure.
And that’s in part, why we put a lot of emphasis at the at the end of our article on, not only racial discrimination that’s been identified and shown in other studies, but structural racism, right?
It’s the fact that, you know, people may be dealing with racism in the job market, in the housing market, that then shapes how they experience some of these socio demographic indicators.
It really just supports our conclusion that it’s not enough to simply look at income or homeownership or even education and immigration, the picture is a little bit more complicated and that ultimately it’s how one experiences these indicators as a Black person that shapes vulnerability to food insecurity.
These findings are just a start, and more research is needed to better understand racism in housing and job markets. Nonetheless, they point to ways that systemic racism in our institutions make Black Canadians more vulnerable to food insecurity, which is associated with so many adverse health outcomes.
One of the things I hear a lot around this kind of research that involves Black folks, Indigenous folks, is that we’re more vulnerable. And I think it’s really important to challenge that because I think we’re not more vulnerable, I think we interact with systems that make us vulnerable to things like food insecurity and poverty, and I think it’s a really important distinction for me, because when I think about what it means to be Black, I think in so many ways the stories focus on us. You know, when you talk about whether it’s police violence, whatever it is, they focus on us. What we need to focus on is the systems, systems that we didn’t create, systems that we haven’t designed, so, so I think yes, we’ve been made vulnerable by the system.
We get more glimpses of what Paul is describing in another finding from our study. Previous research has found that households in Quebec are at lower risk for food insecurity after accounting for other related socio-economic factors. As Andrée-Anne describes, we aren’t able to find out exactly why from the available data, but we think it has to do with Quebec’s more progressive social policies.
Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain
At this point we’re not really sure why living in Quebec appears to be protective against food insecurity compared to living in Ontario. One main hypothesis that we have right now is that it’s because of the differences in the social policies that are in place in Quebec versus Ontario and how that affects the social safety net that protects the more vulnerable and marginalized households in these provinces.
So generally, what we think is that this social safety net in Quebec is stronger and broader, so it reduces vulnerability of food insecurity among households living in Quebec versus households living in Ontario.
An example of social policies that contribute to that social safety net that we’re quite aware of is universal access to affordable childcare in Quebec which doesn’t exist in Ontario, so there are studies that have shown that this program of affordable childcare in Quebec has increased employment among mothers of young children.
And, knowing that families with children have much higher vulnerability to food insecurity, especially single mothers, having social policy that increase employment among mothers could really reduce vulnerability to food insecurity in Quebec.
Another example is unionization. So Quebec has one of the highest unionization rate in Canada and it’s much higher than in Ontario and so workers in Quebec tend to have, potentially those that are unionized, have higher employment security and more security around their wages and how their wages increase over time and they may have access to greater benefits that may reduce vulnerability to food insecurity among workers in Quebec versus Ontario.
The hypothesis is that this could play out at the population level as reduced odds of food insecurity for households in Quebec compared to other provinces. But when we looked closer at the impact for white and Black households, we found that this protection did not apply to Black households. While white households in Quebec were less likely to be food insecure compared to Ontario and other provinces, it didn’t make a difference which province Black households lived in. So whatever protection is conferred by living in Quebec, it doesn’t exist for Black households.
Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain
Seeing that actually that protection only exists for white and not for Black households bring the question of why that might be. And if we keep following with this idea that it’s about differences in the social safety net between the two different provinces, then the question is, is it possible that because of systemic racism the social safety net is not accessed as much by Black households in Quebec? So Black households cannot benefit as much from all of those social benefits that are creating that social safety net in Quebec.
That could be one hypothesis as to what’s driven driving this inequality, where yes, living in Quebec is only protective for those that are white and not those that are Black, because in the end, the social policies that are in place are not reaching Black households in Quebec as much and so they’re not protected as much from food insecurity by not having access to those social policies.
And I’m not sure how we could test this hypothesis, again, we tend to not have in a lot of data sets – we don’t necessarily have all that information that would be needed to look at that. But I think knowing what we know about how social policies are playing out and all of the discrimination that Black individuals are experiencing in Canada, it is not a crazy idea that that’s what’s we’re observing here – that the social policies are in place in Quebec are not accessed as much by Black households.
And that would be again a very strong manifestation of structural racism, of how that plays out at so many different levels – not just about the kind of work you can access, but also all kind of the social policies and programs that you can access too.
When we turn to this paper’s analysis of the relationship between food insecurity and relying on social assistance as a main source of income, we see that the predicted probability of food insecurity didn’t differ actually differ by race, which is likely a reflection of how low social assistance rates are in this country. It’s been well-established that social assistance and welfare rates anywhere in Canada are inadequate for meeting basic needs – households relying on these programs simply do not receive enough money to afford food for themselves and their families.
However, as Paul Taylor describes, we still see ways in which anti-Black racism may exist in the administration of these programs.
While our analysis found that Black and white households reliant on social assistance were as likely to be food insecure as each other, we realized that white Canadians appeared to be receiving more income through social assistance than Black Canadians.
And at first, I remember being completely befuddled. I was like how could that be, you know, I always understood welfare to be, you know, you punch in some numbers, someone’s punching in some numbers somewhere and then it spits out a number and it just does that. But I think I didn’t realize that, first, is that disability income supports are included in that calculation.
So I remember just being absolutely taken aback, realizing, you know, when it comes to – what I’m imagining, you know, I’m taking this data and I’m taking a couple jumps forward – but realizing that what I think is happening is when Black folks are presenting with disabilities and seeking supports for the disabilities that we may navigate, we are less likely to be believed, which means we’re less likely to be approved for disability income supports and it seems that white folks are being approved for more money in disability income supports than Black folks are. And I think that’s incredibly enraging for so many reasons.
But it’s one of the things that highlights for me that when it comes to tackling food insecurity, tackling anti-Black racism in our institutions has to be a really important part of that puzzle, to ensure the Black Canadians aren’t left behind because, like I said, we are so far behind because anti Black racism is so deeply embedded in these institutions.
I haven’t come across evidence of this being questioned or the public having a chance to express outrage around what’s happening here.
The data set doesn’t lend to examining this potential explanation further, but it does point to systemic racism in the administration of public programs and demands more interrogation. To do so, more data – race-based data – is needed to understand racism in our institutions and what we need to do to provide equity and accessibility – whether that’s in our social safety net, employment standards, health system, or any other social system.
Unfortunately, that data for the most part is often not there. Data on race is often not collected and racial disparities in health and well-being remain understudied and unaddressed.
I asked Paul and Simran about the significance of the paper, seeing as it is the first to investigate the relationship between race and food insecurity in Canada.
The research really challenges that kind of aggregate data that has existed for a while about this issue that many people could, you know, rattle off pretty quickly. But it really, you know, highlights the need for disaggregated race-based data, but not just that, but also making sure that there are action plans in place. We are so far behind when it comes to addressing this issue because we don’t even have a seat at the table and the questions that we need to have asked aren’t even being asked.
One of the reasons that we did this study big reason is that there’s just a huge gap in the literature around race and household food insecurity, particularly Black communities in Canada, and so we really thought it was a necessity to do the study and to really focus on Black subgroups. The need for race data was actually really also affirmed by our work, because socioeconomic factors are certainly not enough and I think that socioeconomic factors are shaped by race. If we look at them in isolation, it just means that there’s a large chunk of that puzzle that is missing.
And unfortunately, right now, Canada does a pretty poor job of collecting race-based data to begin with.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have continued to see how racism underpins health inequities through the disproportionate impact on racialized communities. We also saw how the lack of disaggregated race-based data impeded public health decision-making.
This had led to urgent calls for collecting race-based data around COVID cases, vaccination, and the broader social and economic impact of the pandemic. It’s part of the broader push to collect race-based health data and acknowledge and act on health inequities arising from systemic racism.
I asked Melana about the importance of having race-based health data.
To keep it simple, I think information is power and data really is an opportunity for us to have the real information and I think for a long time there was a lot of inaction, because it was very unclear how stark the problem is. And I think COVID-19 was a real kind of floodgate that opened the doors to starting to track who was being affected and how.
We started to see the disparities across racial groups, and I think, despite having data on racial inequality that we already know and some sense that there is inequity around health across different racial groups, I think the level and the extent and impact of it is still very much unknown in many ways.
And I think if we’re ever going to set targets about where we want to be, we need to know where we are, we need to know what the real challenges and I think without collecting race-based data, we won’t know that. And so I think the first step has to be figuring out what is our baseline to understand what we need to shift, how we need to shift it, and what levers to start with.
And so there is a question on the quality of race-based information and how it’s collected, which is critically important because we have seen, and we still see in fact the legitimate distrust of many racialized communities, you know, when their data is being accessed because it’s often used against them.
There is hope that the growing understanding and concern around anti-Black racism, racial health inequities, and the lack of race-based data needed to guide effective decision-making, will spur change. We saw the push from Black health leaders and advocates start to change the landscape of race-based data amidst the pandemic. Melana Roberts told me more about this shift and the need for continued leadership to ensure we can better understand the challenges and invest in evidence-informed strategies.
You know, one thing I can say is that I think that there is a broader, you know, shift towards recognizing the importance of disaggregated race based data like so, for example, the province’s police watchdog organization will begin collecting race-based data for the first time and Statistics Canada will also begin collecting race-based data on how employment rates have been affected by COVID-19 among other things.
So I think we’re seeing synergies in this, and I think there needs to be increased initiative and leadership within the public health sphere, to be able to consider not only how this can help us target our policy solutions, better support communities, but also highlight where we’re failing – where we really need to be serving communities better and how that can shift not only our policy, but our investment, to really ensure improved health equity for Blacks and Canadians, but also for all equity-deserving groups in Canada.
Last summer, the Canadian Institute for Health Information released a set of proposed standards for collecting race-based and Indigenous identity data that would complement existing standards set by Statistics Canada that would allow reporting on health and health care to be integrated and compared with important national surveys.
In September 2020, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a crown corporation with the goal of “making housing affordable for everyone in Canada” acknowledged the need to combat racism in the housing market and pledged to, in their words, “close the data gap that prevents us from understanding the impact of race on housing conditions in Canada”.
Having this empirical evidence is critically important – not collecting race-based data and using it to address health inequity only perpetuates systemic racism.
Every single racialized and particularly Black person will tell you there’s racism in this country that permeates their existence and in this country. And so, in order to drive forward our empirical understanding of race and household food insecurity or other health outcomes, as well as to provide empirical evidence for policy changes, we do unfortunately need to be able to pin down some numbers, and for that we need raw data alongside real stories and anecdotes, right?
And so we need race to be collected in every important population level questionnaire and we need those services to really be consistent in how they collect data on racial categories and associated variables. And that data should be public and widely accessible. Otherwise it’s really easy for people in political leadership, or in other spaces to deny or undermine the role that race plays.
It’s not enough to look at socio-economic factors like household composition, homeownership, or source of income, when we look at food insecurity or other health inequity. A main takeaway here is that racism and race must be a part of the conversation. Here’s Paul Taylor again.
You know, these are all of the insidious ways that anti Black racism works in society, and I really feel like it hasn’t been interrogated enough in solution finding spaces. It hasn’t been prioritized enough in solution finding spaces.
And I think when folks think about things like anti-Black racism, you know, they’re not always thinking about how deeply embedded structurally and systemically anti-Black racism is and how it really limits opportunity, takes food out of people’s mouths, takes money out of their pockets, and really sentences folks to all of the things that are terrible — food insecurity, poverty, over-policing.
All of these sorts of things, they all come together, but there doesn’t seem the political will to actually invest energies and resources to understanding the gravity of the situation and how we can actually move the dial on this.
All the evidence we have tells us that in order to reduce food insecurity in Canada, we need to make sure households have enough money to buy the food they need. The only interventions that have ever been shown to move the needle on food insecurity are those that provide more income and improve households’ financial circumstances.
We’ve mentioned the success story of public pensions drastically reducing food insecurity for low-income adults when they turn 65.
Recently published research also showed that increasing minimum wage, increasing welfare rates, and decreasing income tax for the lowest income households is also associated with lower rates of food insecurity. Providing income support to families with children through child benefits has also been shown to have an impact. Altogether, it’s about our social safety net, fair and adequate wages, reliable jobs — in other words, our social policy and economic environments.
This study is a reminder that racism is embedded in our institutions, and it makes it harder for Black Canadians to have enough money to afford enough food. The findings really speak to the economic disparity and wealth inequity that results from the systemic racism in our country.
When it comes to designing and implementing policies to address and prevent food insecurity, they must address both inadequate income and systemic racism.
So the wealth of literature on household food insecurity tells us that, in order to eliminate food insecurity, we need to change people’s material circumstances. As you said earlier, this is a problem of inadequate economic resources, not because of someone’s, you know, inherent deficit in who they are right? Which is unfortunately still a prominent narrative when it comes to understanding poverty.
So, in order to eliminate food insecurity, we absolutely have to address, you know, people’s incomes people’s, you know, the state of their jobs, precarious jobs, homeownership, how many people are living in a household and whether they can actually support everyone in that household – all these material circumstances also have to be changed in order to eliminate food insecurity.
In order to change inequities in food insecurity and therefore food insecurity in and of itself, we also need to eliminate structural racism and anti-Black racism. We need to see how racism manifests structurally and materially. So at the end of our piece, we mentioned that one serious and prominent way through which anti-Black racism could be manifesting is wealth inequality, wealth inequity, specifically the accumulation of wealth among white households and the disenfranchisement of Black households.
So, you know, when you talk about how do we eliminate food insecurity and anti-Black racism and structural racism, I really see them as intertwined and one cannot be done without the other. If we want to eliminate food insecurity, we have to address inequities and therefore structural racism. If we want to address structural racism and anti-Black racism, then we have to address the underlying material circumstances that drive food insecurity in the first place.
Melana echoed this and emphasized the need to think about all the different institutions and systems, how they determine food insecurity for Canadians, and how racism is so deeply entrenched in them. Whatever policies or programs are put in place to address food insecurity, they must be grounded in a racial equity and justice approach.
And I think that one piece around this is, we might put all these things in, but how are we going to ensure that Black communities have equal and equitable access to these resources?
I think that really forces us to think about what kind of different policy solutions do we need for Black Canadians and also what are the other structural factors that racism truly shapes that need to be considered in our solutions – how are we rethinking how we address anti-Black racism in the workplace, in the housing market, in our institutions to not only support outcomes in those areas, but actually to drive health outcomes and particularly to seeing improvement in things like food insecurity.
And I think we really need to think about how combatting anti-Black racism is not only about increasing the ability of people to belong. It’s actually about increasing the outcomes across health, across employment, across social security, and really setting up a situation where Black Canadians have an equal opportunity to have a certain quality of life. It really forces us to think about — to address food insecurity, we need to address anti-Black racism and linking those two issues with policy solutions that consider the root causes are critical to moving forward with this challenge.
I think it requires a type of analysis that elected officials, governments, don’t seem ever willing to embrace and it’s like a whole of government approach. It’s not one little ministry looking at this issue. It’s how does this show up in social policy, how does it show up in economic policy, how does it show up in housing, how does it show up in employment and it’s not just one level of government, unfortunately, every level of government so that’s really, I think, what needs to happen and before we can really start figuring out how we can eliminate food insecurity for Black folks.
That was Paul on the lack of understanding and political will to address food insecurity and the structural racism that makes Black households more vulnerable to it. Despite having evidence that income-based interventions are what’s needed and widespread recognition that food insecurity is first and foremost an income problem, we haven’t seen policy makers evaluate and implement economic and social policies with the goal of reducing food insecurity. Instead, what we’ve had in Canada for all these years has been a focus on food provision, with an emphasis on strengthening the charitable food sector.
Most notably, the federal government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to food charity under the Emergency Food Security Fund in response to the pandemic.
We see again and again that only a small fraction of food insecure households use food banks. While using a food bank may provide temporary food relief for those who access these programs, there is no evidence that it renders households food secure.
Food, no matter how it is distributed, is not the answer to food insecurity. By the time someone reports that they are struggling to put food on the table, they are also struggling to afford their other basic needs, like housing, utilities, and pharmaceuticals. The solution to that isn’t food. It’s money – making sure Canadians have enough money to make ends meet.
I talked to Paul about what food charities need to do.
Food charities need to stop telling lies, and we need to not allow government officials, politicians, to keep telling lies. Like we if we focus on donors and trying to tell these stories about how we are having an impact on food insecurity, we’re telling lies, you know, every time and it’s so upsetting actually because I will see job postings that say “Food security coordinator”, “tackling food insecurity” you can’t do that. That’s no job description for someone paid $50,000 a year to do. That’s outrageous.
So I think we’ve got to stop telling lies and we’ve got to stop being complicit in this issue, and we need more non-profit leaders and politicians to say these sorts of food-based interventions are not having an impact on food insecurity, they’re not having an impact on poverty and I think we need to make sure that our allegiance, is to low income people, people who are struggling through food insecurity, not to donors and not trying to craft stories to tell donors, so that they will digest them and feel compelled to give.
I think we need to be honest about this issue, we need to be honest about our programs, and we need to be not so proud to, you know, try to shield our programs or initiatives from critiques. You know, we have actually discontinued initiatives, because we couldn’t in good conscience look people in the face, who are food insecure, who are living in poverty, and say that you know, this is a program for you, because it’s going to help with food insecurity or poverty.
As an organization, we have actually been spending more of our energies and time kind of building up our capacity and our ability to advocate for effective public policy interventions, because those are the things that are going to have an impact on the people that we must have allegiance to, so I think that’s really key and unfortunately we’re not seeing enough of it and politicians, of course, make this very opaque because, you know, another thing that infuriates me is that they show up at food banks and they show up at food charities and sort some tins around and take some photos and encourage people to donate.
So there’s just so much misleading that’s happening, and I think it takes bravery, you know, donors might walk away because they don’t get that that wonderful feeling of, you know, solving the issue but it’s not about them. It’s about our allegiance. It has to be about the people who are most affected by this issue and that’s it.
I want to close out this podcast with Simran’s hopes for this research to inform societal changes, changes that will see Canada dismantle anti-Black racism and eliminate food insecurity.
So I think this piece hopefully just provides the important empirical evidence that’s needed to implement and at least begin to discuss real solutions to household food insecurity that keep racial inequities at the forefront.
And I am hopeful that this is a moment that has unveiled a lot of previous notions about what food insecurity looks like in this country, and also, you know, all of the studies about, for instance COVID-19, how it manifests, vaccine deserts and all the different neighborhoods in Toronto, and the GTA that are low income, primarily immigrant, racialized, Black have also been, you know, neglected in terms of the pandemic. Those are the exact same neighborhoods if we were to compare to, you know, geographic studies around other health and social outcomes. Those are the same neighborhoods that are also food insecure. So I think this is a timely study and hopefully it, it provides the evidence needed to change people circumstances.
Thank you for listening to this special podcast presentation on PROOF’s new research on racial disparities in food insecurity. A very special thanks to our guests, Paul Taylor, Simran Dhunna, Melana Roberts, and Dr. Andrée-Anne Fafard-St. Germain.
To learn more about our research on food insecurity in Canada, visit our website, proof.utoronto.ca. There you will find our show notes, including the transcript with links to the research articles discussed.
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