Food insecurity can be defined by several different characteristics and does not necessarily have one, universal definition.
For some, it can mean a lack of physical, economic or culturally acceptable access to food and in extreme cases, it can mean that one’s nutritional food intake is too low.
The issue of food insecurity is very much systemic, and is steadily on the rise in Hamilton. Emergency food bank usage within the city from both adults and children has risen by 9.5 per cent and 10 per cent respectively from 2016 to 2017.
In Canada, the rising cost of living is rising faster than inflation rates, making food more expensive, affordable housing more difficult to find and several aspects of a healthy life harder to achieve for some. While there are several groups who are working to ensure that everyone in Hamilton is food secure, there is still more work to be done.
Helping hunger in Hamilton
Several initiatives within the city of Hamilton are working diligently to provide adequate food, nutritional information and resources about food insecurity to those who may be affected by the issue.
Hamilton Food Share’s Food Recovery Program takes healthy products deemed surplus by food industry standards and redirects them onto the tables of the people who need it the most. In 2016-2017 alone, Hamilton Food Share distributed over 2.7 million pounds of all food given.
Building these partnerships within the food industry establishes a gateway for continuous food donations, while each dollar raised supports families who go hungry within the community.
“While food is often the immediate crisis which causes people to access a food bank, the food bank acts also as a community portal that connects food bank users to other relevant community supports which might help unlock additional help as well,” said Joanne Santucci, Executive Director of Hamilton Food Share.
For over 30 years, Neighbour to Neighbour has provided emergency food programs for those in need by offering a unique experience for those who access a food bank. Through a food bank in the form of a grocery store, Neighbour to Neighbour ensures that customers have the agency of choosing their own groceries for their families. Each visitor is allocated points to spend on key nutritional items such as meat, dairy and produce, as well as non-perishable food items.
The Hamilton Community Foundation provides assistance in the fight against hunger in a different way. By providing grants to registered charities, the Hamilton Community Foundation assists charities financially in their work against poverty in the city. In relation to food insecurity, the foundation has provided grants to organizations including Hamilton Food Share and Neighbour to Neighbour, in addition to multiple community garden projects such as the McQuesten Urban Farm, and Essential Aid among others.
While food is often the immediate crisis which causes people to access a food bank, the food bank acts also as a community portal that connects food bank users to other relevant community supports which might help unlock additional help as well.
Hamilton Food Share
As household food insecurity is on the rise in Canada, it is linked closely to poorer health status. Those affected typically have more health emergencies and a lower life expectancy than those from affluent neighbourhoods.
“37 per cent of our food bank users are people on disability who are now both sick and broke,” said Santucci. “So whether it’s the private sector providing more disability coverage or governments improving benefit rates, we need [a] change that helps encourage everyone to be able to contribute to their full potential.”
Every year, Hamilton Food Share collects data on local food bank usage in association with their member agencies to find out if more people are going hungry and for how long. The report, titled Hunger Count aims to share a snapshot of poverty in Hamilton through demonstrating the statistics they find and comparing them with those from previous years.
According to the Hunger Count report, people with the lowest incomes have an average life expectancy of 21 years shorter than those of highest incomes. Without access to appropriate and sufficient food, people living in poverty pay more for medical costs.
There are difficult decisions that food bank users face everyday, within over 5,246 households, 75 per cent live in market rental housing. Without regulation, landlords are free to charge excessively for rental units in order to meet the economic need. According to the Hamilton Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report, Hamilton’s rise in rent costs is one of the sharpest in Ontario. Last year alone, the cost of renting went up by 5.1 per cent.
In Hamilton, 80 per cent of households who live in market rental properties are at high or extreme risk of homelessness. The degree of risk lies in the percentage of income to rent ratio. For example, paying 30 per cent to 50 per cent of household income in rent puts households at risk of homelessness.
“The issue of food insecurity is directly related to higher level policy issues such as inadequate social assistance rates, the high cost of housing, employment, etc.,” said Sharon Charters, Grant Manager at the Hamilton Community Foundation. “As a community we need to advocate for a social welfare system that ensures a decent standard of living for everyone.”
As a community we need to advocate for a social welfare system that ensures a decent standard of living for everyone.
Hamilton Community Foundation
Food insecurity on campus
Food insecurity is not just felt in neighbourhoods within the city. Several students on campus are suffering from a lack of appropriate, nutritious, or any food at all.
In 2016, Meal Exchange, a charity aimed at ending student food insecurity, surveyed over 4000 students on five university campuses across the country to better understand students’ experiences with the issue.
Their findings demonstrated that nearly 39 per cent of post-secondary students experience some form of food insecurity, with 30.7 per cent of students experiencing moderate food insecurity and 8.3 per cent experiencing severe food insecurity.
Students who are food insecure reported on various barriers to food security, including food costs, tuition fees, housing costs and inadequate income supports.
A student-run service, Mac Bread Bin works towards building more secure food systems within McMaster and the surrounding community. The service offers resources that include an on-campus food bank, a monthly Good Food Box filled with local produce and anonymous assistance in acquiring non-perishable goods.
“We do not want students having to choose to miss a meal based on their financial situation or when they prioritize education during busy times,” said Taylor Mertens, director of Mac Bread Bin. “We have great conversations and created a real community and talk about food insecurity with these fine folks.”
Some financial policies at McMaster create ripples that can lead students to be food insecure, including the late fee policy, which currently sits at $75 if not paid on time for people paying tuition, in addition to increasing tuition rates on campus.
According to Mertens, service usage for Bread Bin has increased by 29 per cent over the last eight months, demonstrating how unsustainable this financial model is for students.
We do not want students having to choose to miss a meal based on their financial situation or when they prioritize education during busy times.
McMaster Bread Bin
Despite the active and diligent efforts of individuals and organizations to ensure that nobody within the Hamilton community goes hungry, there is still more work to be done.
“The young people of Hamilton are our future,” said Santucci. “Educating students on who is at risk and how they can help will better equip our community as a whole as they become our next teachers, city councillors, entrepreneurs and donors to tackle the tough issues of the day; like children going hungry in Hamilton.”
Individuals looking to get involved with ending the fight against hunger are encouraged to volunteer their time at a local food bank, advocate for increased social assistance rates and a proper living wage, donate food or funds wherever possible and to participate in the fight against hunger by keeping an open dialogue about the issue with loved ones.