In Toronto, many of us face the same day-to-day problems – paying bills, dealing with traffic and finding the right balance between personal and professional life. But according to the 2012 PROOF report, around 300,000 Torontonians are also faced with the burden of finding their next meal.
Known as food insecurity, it’s not only about hunger – it’s about a lack of access to good nutrition. A lot of people who are food insecure are not necessarily people you would recognize.
“It could be the woman at the grocery checkout, it could be your neighbour, it could be your child’s best friend at school,” says Debra Lawson, Executive Director at Second Harvest. “It’s important to understand that with food insecurity, any of these people can be eating enough food and still suffer from malnutrition.”
An elderly man with mobility challenges may be food insecure because his health limits his ability to get to a grocery store. And, if he also lives on a small pension, when he is able to make his way to a store, he’s more likely to choose cheaper foods that will last longer rather than good, healthy foods.
“A single mother may skip meals to ensure her children have something to eat.”
A single mother may skip meals to ensure her children have something to eat. She may rarely make the healthier, more expensive, food choices because she has to pay rent or worries about how much money will be left at the end of each month. Instead, she relies on low-cost, low-nutrient food that will fill her children’s bellies.
“Thinking about these two people, from these two perspectives, would you buy the fresh tomatoes and nice broccoli or would you buy the cheap mac and cheese?” asks Lawson.
Second Harvest plays a critical role in tackling food insecurity while at the same time addressing the issue of food waste. Good quality donated, surplus food is picked up by Second Harvest and distributed to over 100,000 people per month across the city.
For both the elderly man and the single parent, food insecurity has a psychological impact. The single mother may feel guilty or ashamed for not being able to give her kids the healthy food they need. The elderly man may become socially isolated. They would both likely suffer a lot of stress.
“It’s very stressful to not know where your next meal is going to come from,” says Lauren Baker, Food Policy Specialist at Toronto Public Health.
But being food insecure is a different experience for a child. Like an adult, a child who is food insecure may still be hungry. But a child doesn’t necessarily understand why they are hungry and may not have the ability to solve the problem either. Instead, a child is expected to go to school and meet their learning and social expectations. As such, poor nutrition often causes them to have difficulty focusing, to act out and to suffer from other behavioural issues.
“We need good nutrition to feed our brains. When you feed children well, you’re giving them the ability to be successful in life,” says Lawson. “How does anyone succeed if they aren’t getting the proper nourishment?
“Whether it’s a child or an adult, people who are food insecure look like everyone else. The reasons for food insecurity are so varied that you don’t know who they are or what they look like. It could be just about anyone,” says Lawson.