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Two-in-three low income Toronto families face food insecurity

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Food an issue for 80 per cent of families on social assistance

by Paul Cantin

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Two out of three Toronto families in low-income neighbourhoods are unable to get the food they need and community initiatives such as food banks and school nutrition programs are not able to arrest a problem of this size and scope, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

Food insecurity — the lack of access to food due to insufficient resources — was an issue for 80 per cent of families on social assistance in the studied neighbourhoods. Even among the employed, the rate was just under 60 percent.

“Despite the presence of food banks, an alarming number of people are going hungry, which constitutes a serious public health issue,” said Sharon Kirkpatrick, who undertook the research as part of her doctoral work at U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. “There is a misperception that programs such as food banks are a panacea. Clearly, we need new strategies for confronting the root problem of poverty.”

The research, published in the current edition of the Canadian Journal of Public Health, was conducted by a team including investigators from the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Queen’s University, in collaboration with Toronto Public Health and the City of Toronto Shelter, Housing and Support Division.

The team found that for almost a third (28 per cent) of low-income families, the level of food insecurity is so severe it qualifies as food deprivation (e.g., adults and/or children not eating enough because they lacked food and money for food). While poverty and lack of access to food was all too common, few families obtained help from food banks and few had children participating in school nutrition programs. When faced with the threat of acute food shortages, families reported that they often used strategies like forfeiting services as basic as the telephone or not paying the rent or bills on time.

“A compromised diet has both short- and long-term effects on health and the strategies families resort to in order to mitigate food insecurity compound their vulnerability,” said Kirkpatrick, who is currently undertaking postgraduate studies at the University of Calgary.

The study involved interviews with 500 low-income families with children residing in 12 high-poverty Toronto neighbourhoods. The participants were recruited door-to-door and the interviews were conducted by research assistants who had personal experience with food insecurity and poverty. The study sample included families that relied on income from welfare (Ontario Works), the Ontario Disability Support Program and other government programs, but most were “working poor” families whose primary source of income was from employment.

Among the data collected by the researchers:

— In one in 10 families, there were adults who had gone whole days without eating because there wasn’t enough money for food.

— 45 per cent reported that they couldn’t always afford to feed their children a balanced meal.

— When faced with the threat of acute food shortages, 50 per cent of families had delayed paying bills, 31 per cent had given up telephone, Internet and/or cable television services and 23 per cent had delayed paying their rent.

— Only one-third of families with school-aged children reported participation in children’s food programs at schools or community agencies.

— Although food bank programs were available in the neighbourhoods studied, only 22 per cent of families had used a food bank in the last 12 months.

— Families facing severe food insecurity were more likely than others to use a food bank, suggesting that program use is a marker of desperation.

The problems of food insecurity documented in this study can only worsen with the current economic crisis, as the number of people requiring welfare assistance rises and low income families face a greater struggle to afford food and other essentials.

“It is imperative that all levels of government protect the health and well-being of Canadian families by taking steps to ensure that those reliant on low-wage jobs and those who are unemployed and reliant on welfare or other income support programs have the resources to obtain adequate food as well as meet their other basic needs,” said Kirkpatrick.

Editorial reference: LINK

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Written by thecanadianheadlines

December 26, 2009 at 11:27 pm

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