Tackling the problem of food insecurity

Why food banks are not enough

How do you save more than four million Canadians from hunger? For food and health researchers Jennifer Brady, Elaine Power and Jennifer Black, the solution goes beyond food banks. While food banks play a crucial role in helping people in need―especially in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic―different approaches are required to bring about real, lasting change, they say.

“Donating a can of soup helps someone today,” said Black. “But it does nothing to make sure they don’t still need help tomorrow.”

The three researchers say it’s time to shift the conversation and get at the root causes of food insecurity—such as poverty, homelessness, precarious work, marginalization and inadequate social supports—so hunger can be eliminated. All three are carrying out SSHRC-supported research on food insecurity and its impact on communities. They share a goal: for all people to be able to get the food they need in a way that maintains their dignity, ultimately making food banks unnecessary.

Advocating for change

An assistant professor in applied human nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University, Jennifer Brady used her SSHRC funding to examine how training dietetics students in advocacy could change how they viewed their role in food justice once they started clinical practice. After taking a class built around developing a food advocacy campaign, students expressed more confidence and understanding of how they could go beyond physiological problems to address some of the structural causes of poor nutrition, including poverty, stigma and social exclusion.

“As an educator and mentor, my aim is to ‘teach to transform,’” she says, “which to me means educating the whole student to deepen their knowledge and academic skills, but also their engagement in the world as informed, conscientious and accountable citizens.”

When doing good is divisive

Elaine Power, an associate professor in health studies at Queen’s University, is using her SSHRC Insight Grant to examine how the structures of community food programs can affect the underlying issues.

“Programs that just take in and distribute donations tend to reinforce the division between donors and beneficiaries,” she said. “Food banks are stigmatizing,” she says. “Programs that bring people together to collaborate and advocate for change alongside the food assistance element are the ones that can actually make a difference.”

Teaching kids the right lessons

Jennifer Black leads the Public Health and Urban Nutrition research group at The University of British Columbia. She used her SSHRC Partnerships Engage Grant to team up with the New Westminster School District to study the potential impacts of a district-wide, universally accessible school meal program. A pilot project at three schools revealed that children view food as a symbol of care and absorb messages about society’s values through food programs.

“Schools hold food drives all the time and they seem like such a great way to teach kids about the power of giving,” said Black. “We’re teaching our kids to have empathy and care for others, but we’re also misleading them to think food banks are an adequate solution to poverty.”

Creating new resources

To help shift kids’ perspectives on hunger, Black teamed up with Power and Brady to write a children’s book about food insecurity and its root causes. They hope that encouraging children to think beyond food banks will change the conversation from the ground up and eventually influence decisions by governments and policy-makers.

“It’s going to take time,” said Black. “But if we start now, these kids will eventually be in the positions of power to make the changes that will make food banks obsolete.”

Read more about Brady, Power and Black’s work at The Conversation. Learn about their individual work at jenniferbrady.ca, @elainepower6 and phun.landfood.ubc.ca.