The story of Lola Lathon is, unfortunately, a familiar one: a woman whose meagre wages prevent her from accessing good-quality food, and force her to turn to food banks for support. In a June New York Times article, the Houston-based mother described how she has to skip meals to afford the gas to get to her full-time job. Ms. Lathon, like a disproportionate number of low-income individuals, suffers from type 2 diabetes, a disease whose management is markedly impacted by diet.
Her story is echoed in a new report, Food and Nutrition: Hard Truths about Eating Healthy, released this week by the New York Academy of Medicine. The report collects the first-person accounts of food-insecure New Yorkers struggling with income and time barriers that prevent them from accessing healthy food, and lead to negative health outcomes. “I work so hard that I don’t have time to eat right. I’m trying to eat healthy foods but I work 12 hours a day, 5 days a week. So when I come home I’m ready to go to sleep. I try to eat the right things but then I go back to eating junk food. It’s a bad thing for me.”
We hear similar stories from our partner Community Food Centres. Susie, a community member at the Dartmouth North Community Food Centre, described how food insecurity was affecting her health in a letter she wrote to staff last year: “I cannot explain to you the feeling of defeat when you know you have to eat something that’s going to put you in pain, because there’s nothing else to eat.”
PROOF: Food Insecurity Policy Research’s fact sheets on food insecurityshow that more than four million Canadians are unable to access a stable supply of food. This means that, at any given time, four million Canadians are stretching their food budget with cheap low-nutrient foods, or skipping meals altogether. The consequences to an individual’s health are serious: food-insecure adults are more vulnerable to chronic diseases like diabetes, and exposure to severe food insecurity in childhood can manifest in greater risks for conditions like asthma, depression, and suicidal ideation in adolescence and early adulthood. The public costs of poverty and food insecurity are also great: health care costs are 121% higher for adults living in severely food insecure households than in food secure households. Some medical professionals in the U.S. are taking note: new treatment guidelines by the American Diabetes Association urge clinicians to ask patients about food insecurity and to propose solutions.
Are we finally nearing a tipping point? Can we finally come to a societal consensus that access to healthy food is a key determinant of health, and that we must do better than handing out salt, sugar and fat to the most disadvantaged members of our communities? It will only happen when enough of us raise our voices and say that the status quo is unacceptable, that we’ve got to do better. It’s up to us to reach out to allies and keep pushing towards that tipping point.
The New York Times article describes how food charities in the U.S. have started to offer healthier food options and support community members with health services like blood sugar checks. Ms. Lathon in Houston is now able to access more fresh produce, and support to make healthier choices. Community Food Centres and Good Food Organizations here are doing the same. For Susie in Dartmouth, having access to nutritious meals through her Community Food Centre was life-changing. “Since I came here, my health both mental and physical has improved. Getting healthy meals and affordable food has made it so I have a choice about what goes into my body. This has made an impact on what I am able to do physically and has made me feel better. Mentally I feel better because I’m no longer stressed over pain. I feel better because I have a place other than my apartment to go, to eat, to be around people or to just sit by myself. I just started volunteering. I even joined a cooking class.”
Good food can be the beginning of many changes in someone’s life. That’s why, in addition to providing access to good food in dignified spaces, Community Food Centres and Good Food Organizations across the country offer programs that provide ways for people to build cooking and gardening skills, try new foods, and increase their nutrition knowledge.
The Table CFC’s Dads and Kids Community Kitchen brings fathers and their children together to prepare meals, and offers practical cooking skills that build confidence in the kitchen and make it easier to transition away from processed foods. But community kitchens teach more than knife skills – they teach people that they can be active in choosing what and how they eat within the limits of their circumstances, and that they can prepare healthy food for themselves and their families. In a recent post, Jamie Oliver implored parents to please just cook with their kids. But what happens when parents have to work two minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet? Or commute two hours a day by public transit to get to and from work, with no grocery store on the way? What if there isn’t enough money in the bank to allow them to experiment with new healthy food their kids might like? Often, processed foods aren’t a choice, they’re the only option. We live in a society where the best food and health is a privilege not accessible to everyone.
“There’s fruit and vegetables in my meals now. There’s no foil or shiny wrappers. I’m not unwrapping my meals anymore,” says Gord, a participant in The Local CFC’s 12-week FoodFit program. The program is offered to low-income community members who experience barriers around healthy eating and physical activity but who are motivated to make lasting changes to their health. Fun hands-on cooking sessions and food-based activities are paired with easy-to-understand nutrition information, group exercise, shared meals, and self-directed individual and group goal-setting. It’s about helping people find manageable and realistic ways to make lasting changes. And it’s about confronting the systemic barriers people face, like unhealthy food environments, lack of accessibility, and inadequate wages or social assistance.
That’s why cooking up change in the kitchen is not enough. We need to push together towards bigger systemic change. Let’s get to that tipping point. Because what we’re doing right now isn’t enough, and the health and well-being of our fellow Canadians hangs in the balance. There’s a lot of work to do to ensure that everyone who calls Canada home has access to good food and living wages, and to address the unhealthy and unsustainable aspects of our food system. But as Lola and Susie’s stories remind us, change is possible and every small step in the right direction has meaningful benefits for the food insecure members of our communities and our society as a whole.