I have been very fortunate: in all my 46 years, I have only had two weeks of food insecurity. But it’s a time that I’ve never forgotten. That’s why I was so interested in the report on how we are doing in our community around the issue of food security. The report, called Edmonton Vital Signs®, was created by the Edmonton Community Foundation, in partnership with Edmonton Social Planning Council. A number of facts struck home for me, including:
12.3% of Alberta households experienced food insecurity in 2011. (173,000 people)
17.9% of children are affected. Over 1 in 3 (35.1%) lone parent households experience food insecurity.
12,677 individuals per month accessed food hampers through the Edmonton Food Bank in 2012.
Food is life. In addition to the obvious physical necessity of it, food provides strong emotional sustenance as well. We associate food with a sense of belonging, of community, well-being and love. We celebrate, bond, flirt and laugh over food… and when grief falls heavily and words fail, we show up with casseroles. With food playing such an essential role to our physical, emotional, and social health, it’s probably no surprise that food insecurity has severe and far-reaching impacts.
My two weeks of food insecurity took place when I was 21 years old and newly-arrived in London, England. I hadn’t anticipated all the hidden costs of moving to a big city in another country and my bundle of cash quickly disappeared. I was able to find work at a daycare, but payday was at the end of the month and the final two weeks were desperate. For the first time in my life, I faced the horrible questions: Would I have enough to eat? How hungry would I be? I felt irritable and started ‘food loading’ wherever I could, in anticipation of the hunger. I remember eating the crusts that we cut off the children’s sandwiches at the daycare. In fact, any food that was going to be wasted at work, I would eat. I was driven by a pervasive feeling of uncertainty and became obsessed with food. I lived in London for a year and although my financial situation improved and I was never as desperate again, the seed of food insecurity had been planted. I continued to feel nervous about my access to food and, paradoxically, I gained a lot of weight over the year.
Food security is tied to poverty. The report outlines some of the contributing factors in our community, including rising costs of nutritious food and low wages. (1 in 5 people earn $15/hr. or less and 62% of them are women). We know that some members of our community are disproportionately affected by poverty, for example: twice as many Aboriginal people face unemployment. Poor health outcomes are also closely tied to poverty. Diabetes is on the rise in Edmonton and there is a link between nutrition and income.
Clearly, we have work to do in the area of food security. Awareness is the first step, but collective action will be required to move the needle on poverty. United Way is committed to lifting people out of poverty and ensuring that food security (along with housing security, education, mental wellness, financial literacy and more) is experienced by everyone in our community. Together, we can address the root causes of poverty and create meaningful, long-term change, so that temporary measures like the Food Bank hampers will be required by fewer and fewer people in our community. Because no one in our community should have to experience the gnawing desperation of food insecurity.