There are 1.36 million food insecure households in Canada, where people have inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints. Almost one-third (573,500) of these households are in Ontario. More than one in ten Ontario households experience some degree of food insecurity, and 16.4% of Ontario’s children live in a food insecure household. Oftentimes, food insecurity is a result of inadequate income, but it can also be the result of other causes, such as living in an area without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food (e.g. food desert). While Canadian research is limited, studies suggest that there are significant numbers of Ontarians living in food deserts, and that their numbers are growing. For example, almost half of Toronto residents live more than one kilometre away from a major grocery store — a situation that is more pronounced in the urban suburbs and priority neighbourhoods.
However, increasing access to healthy, nutritious food is not only an issue for the economically vulnerable or those living in food deserts. Across all industrialized countries, we are seeing a dramatic increase in obesity — in Ontario, it is estimated that one in two adults is overweight or obese. While obesity can be caused by a number of factors, such as insufficient physical activity, diet plays a significant role. This increase in obesity is contributing to an increase in a number of diet-related chronic diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and hypertension, which are contributing to $1.6 billion in direct health care costs. Therefore, helping people make better food choices can play a significant role in increasing population health and reducing health care costs.
Communities have implemented many initiatives in an attempt to address food insecurity and increase access to fresh, healthy, culturally-appropriate food for their members. These initiatives are often grounded in a community food assessment to identify the unique needs and circumstances in each community.
- Community Food Distribution Programs
- Student Nutrition Programs
- Food Literacy and Education – Youth
- Food Literacy and Education – Consumers
- Farmers’ Market Voucher and/or Incentive Programs
- Community Gardens
- Edible Landscaping
- Community Food Assessments
Community Food Distribution Programs
In March 2013, an estimated 375,789 Ontarians accessed food banks across the province. Of that, 131,734 were under the age of 18 years of age. These statistics are slightly higher than that of the 2008 recession period (374,230 per month) and significantly higher than the 2006 and 2007 pre-recession periods (330,491 and 318,540 per month, respectively).
- Waterloo Region Neighbourhood Markets: In 2007, five neighbourhood markets were established as a pilot initiative by the Region of Waterloo Public Health to address the lack of fresh produce markets in certain neighbourhoods in Waterloo Region. The Region of Waterloo Public Health acted as a strong champion to lead the planning and implementation of the initial pilot program, and Opportunities Waterloo Region (non-profit organization dedicated to poverty reduction) took charge of the operational aspects of the markets. The Region of Waterloo Community Outreach Program also supported the project by distributing market vouchers to low-income families to be redeemed for market products. The project used a community planning process which attracted 26 community partners representing faith groups, community organizations, private businesses, neighbourhood groups, farmers, and area municipalities. Currently, there are two markets in the Waterloo region with minimal (administrative) oversight from the Region and are spearheaded by community organizations and volunteers. A 2009 program evaluation showed that 100% of participants surveyed felt that the markets had increased their access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and that the markets increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by 53% and 90% respectively. The initiative remains successful due to the strong community buy-in established in the planning stages of the pilot program.
Student Nutrition Programs
For many children and youth, breakfasts, snacks or lunches provided by student nutrition programs are the only meal or the only healthy meal that they eat during the day. A vast body of evidence shows that student nutrition programs contribute significantly to reducing tardiness and illness, to improving students’ behaviour in class, and to improving students’ abilities to concentrate, retain and apply information. Connecting children with healthy, local food through student nutrition programs, helps to reduce food insecurity but also supports local farmers and food processors – strengthening our food system in multiple ways.
- Providing Healthy, Local Breakfast Options for Peterborough Students: With support from the Greenbelt Fund and funding from the Ontario Government, the Peterborough County-City Health Unit is starting a project for increasing Local Food in Student Nutrition Programs to find new ways to link local food and farming to their 47 Student Nutrition Programs through education and local food purchasing. This will create new market opportunities for at least five farmers and will connect local food to the curriculum. The Health Unit will work with Food For Kids Peterborough and County as well as Farms at Work and the YWCA of Peterborough Haliburton on this program.
Food Literacy and Education – Youth
As Ontario’s Local Food Act, 2013 was being debated, there was strong consensus that improving food literacy was critical to connecting people to their food systems and helping them to access healthy food by providing them with basic food education skills, such as food preparation, safe food handling and information on healthy diets and nutrition. This was considered especially important for school-age children, as shown in a 2010 poll by FoodShare which revealed that 95% of Ontarians support making food literacy a part of the mainstream school curriculum. Enhancing food literacy within the school systems is being done in a number of innovative ways, such as through local procurement or school gardens and food programs, with impressive results. For example, in a survey of Ontario respondents involved in their school food gardens, 91% said that the garden fostered awareness and appreciation of nutritious food. Check out Sustain Ontario’s food literacy discussion paper for more.
- School Food Action Coalition in the Region of Peel: The Peel District School Board, in partnership with the Peel Public Health Unit, Compass/Chartwells (third party corporate contract caterer), and Ecosource (non-profit environmental organization), developed a School Food Action Coalition to increase the use of Ontario-grown foods in its school cafeterias. The group focuses on developing menu items that increases the use of Ontario-grown foods, and achieved success by involving students and cafeteria staff through promotional and educational events such as a cooking competition and visits to local farms.
- Screaming Avocado, Stratford: The Screaming Avocado is a student-run cafeteria at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School. Its goal is to connect youth to good, clean and fair local food and to develop their ability to prepare healthy meals from scratch. The program, which is an extension of the school’s culinary arts program, feeds up to 300 patrons per day utilizing food from their 3,000 square foot organic garden, an organic greenhouse and a six acre school farm. Not only do the 200 participants in the program help bring fresh, healthy food into their own school, but they also provide warm meals for local elementary school lunch programs and hosts a weekly community kitchen to support food access and literacy in the broader community.
- School Grown: FoodShare’s School Grown is a schoolyard farming project that employs students in running urban market gardens. School Grown engages and excites high school students with growing, preparing and selling vegetables, fruits and preserves. During the school year, the project provides hands-on learning opportunities for students both in the classroom and in the field. Over the summer, students are hired to work alongside the School Grown farm manager in running the market gardens, selling at farmers’ markets and delivering produce to local restaurants. The market garden at Bendale Business and Technical Institute in Scarborough was one of Canada’s first school-based market gardens, and has grown to include a ¼ acre garden and a 1,000-gallon aquaponic system that allows for year-round production of greens and herbs.
- Creating a Healthy School Nutrition Environment (CHSNE), Timiskaming: The Timiskaming Health Unit collaborated with local school districts on a multi-year, bilingual project, which created awareness about healthy school environments and enthusiasm for healthy eating. The program built off of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s Freggie and the Fruits and Veggies—Mix it up! brand, featuring a costumed mascot named Freggie that promoted eating fruits and vegetables to students. The brand’s successful uptake with the student community led the advisory committee to promote Freggie outside the school environment in grocery stores, recreation centres, and at other community locations. The program’s strategy was to have school-aged children recognize Freggie on the decals, leading them to ask their parents to buy produce. Program costs were covered by the health unit, a Heart and Stroke Foundation Kid Fit grant, and other grants.
Food Literacy and Education – Consumers
While successfully developing a healthy food culture and improving food literacy among youth is essential to support long-term population health, it is also critical to educate adults on how to make healthy food choices and to encourage them to buy more fresh, healthy food to promote good health and to manage or prevent diet related illnesses, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Not only does this support public health objectives, but it also has significant economic implications for society. For example, in 2009, it was estimated that obesity-related chronic conditions cost Ontario about $4.5 billion per year, $1.6 billion in direct health care costs and $2.87 billion in indirect costs (e.g. lost productivity).
- Savvy Diner Campaign, Toronto: Toronto Public Health’s Savvy Diner campaign uses a series of shareable infographics, videos, a quiz and a petition to uncover support for provincial legislation that would make menu labelling a requirement for larger chain restaurants. Menu labelling with nutritional information complements community food literacy objectives and enables eaters to make healthier food choices. The campaign raises awareness about the calorie and sodium content of restaurant meals, highlighting the connection between generally high sodium levels in these meals and chronic illness. The education material is scalable and can be used in wider contexts and for other jurisdictions. A voluntary menu labelling pilot project was initiated in July 2013 with nine independent restaurants to test the feasibility of disclosing the calorie and sodium content of standard menu items. Technical support for the pilot is provided by TPH’s Registered Dietitians to complete the recipe standardization and nutritional analysis.
Farmers’ Market Voucher and/or Incentive Programs
Increasingly, farmers’ markets are recognized as a potential source of fresh, healthy food for vulnerable populations, although the cost of food at many markets can be out of reach for lower income earners. Thirty-six US states have implemented voucher programs to help participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children access fresh, nutritious, locally-grown fruits and vegetables. In 2013, 1.5 million people were eligible to use the vouchers at 3,300 farmers’ markets and 2,700 roadside stands, resulting in over $13.2 million in increased revenue for farmers. Similar programs have been established in British Columbia and several communities in Ontario. Check out the Sustain Ontario website for more resources on farmers’ market vouchers.
- Harvest Bucks, Middlesex-London: Harvest Bucks began as a collaborative pilot project between the Middlesex-London Health Unit, the Child and Youth Network’s Healthy Eating Physical Activities Committee, and their Ending Poverty Committee to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and to increase familiarity and comfort with local farmers’ markets. Harvest Bucks are vouchers that can be used at three London farmers’ markets in London over the course of a calendar year. While they can be purchased by individuals, they are primarily intended to be distributed by community programs that include healthy eating and food skills components. In fall/winter 2012-2013, the program distributed vouchers to 411 individuals and families, who redeemed them for almost $5,000 worth of fruits and vegetables.
- Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program, British Columbia: The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program targets low-income pregnant women and low-income families with children and is linked with food skills development. The initiative gives participants enrolled in cooking and skill-building programs $15.00 coupons each week throughout the summer and early fall to buy fruit, vegetables, dairy products, eggs, fish, meat, nuts and herbs from local farmers’ markets. The program has been implemented with a range of populations, including newly-arrived immigrants and Aboriginal peoples. This approach has successfully increased participants’ access to fresh foods, their nutritional knowledge and their awareness of local markets. Market vendors also reported increased sales. Fifteen new markets have been added to the Coupon Program this season (2014), for a total of 49 participating markets located throughout the province. The program is expected to support about 3,500 families and seniors, with an estimated 10,000 individuals benefiting in 2014.
The Public Health Agency of Canada has recognized the health benefits of community gardens, primarily for exercise and stress release. Research has demonstrated that community gardens have other health and social benefits for participants and their communities. For example, community gardens provide increased access to fresh, culturally-appropriate food, support increased food literacy, provide education and skills training, and help to strengthen social ties and civic pride in local communities.
- Hamilton Community Garden: The City of Hamilton passed a new Community Garden Policy in April 2010 and it came into effect on January 1, 2011. This policy sets out guidelines for the creation of new community gardens on City-owned lands and will also result in changes to the operation of the City’s three current community gardens at Dundas, Churchill Park and Victoria Park. The Hamilton Community Garden Network has partnered with the Neighbour to Neighbour Centre, Hamilton Public Health Services, North Hamilton Community Health Centre and the City Housing Hamilton, the City of Hamilton Department of Public Works.
- Growing to Give Garden Project and the Firehall Community Garden Project, Vaughan:These two garden projects are a result of a collaboration led by Seeds for Change (SFC), a grass-roots community organization aimed at creating healthier neighbourhoods through school and community gardens. SFC’s partners include the City of Vaughan’s Parks Operations & Forestry Department, Environmental Sustainability Office, Vaughan’s Rescue Service and the York Region Food Network. The projects originated out of the Growing to Give Garden pilot project in 2011, which transformed an unused plot of grass behind a Thornhill firehall into a vibrant allotment-style garden with 13 beds tended by 32 volunteers. In two seasons, the project has donated 375 lbs of fresh produce to people in need. As a result of this success, they have now launched the Firehall Community Garden Project with plans to extend this project to the nine municipalities of the York Region by opening a new community firehall garden every two years. The project has been supported by a broad spectrum of community members, with funding from the City of Vaughan, Vaughan Fire Fighters and Longos, and in-kind support from various community businesses.
Edible landscapes that are open to the public or specific community groups with agreement from the city increase access to food sources (fruits, vegetables, nuts and herbs) that are not available in grocery stores for all income levels. In 2010, Dietitians of Canada (Ontario) released a report that a healthy diet is inaccessible for individuals or families on social assistance. The Nutritious Food Basket tool used by various municipalities’ Public Health Departments demonstrate that nutritious food is not easily accessible to low income families. A study by Durham Regional Health Department found a 5.5 increase in nutritious food prices from 2011 to 2013, therefore as food prices increase food insecurity will increase as well. Harvesting fruit on public lands can increase citizens’ access to healthy food. Municipalities can work to increase food-bearing trees on public land and amend bylaws that create barriers to harvesting trees on public land.
- Hidden Harvest Ottawa (HHO): In 2012, HHO began organizing harvests of existing trees on both public and private lands as well as planting new edible trees in the city. Harvests are shared among homeowners, harvesters, the nearest food agencies and HHO. HHO helps to increase food security by reducing barriers to harvesting and planting food-bearing trees. Additionally, with the support of Ottawa Public Health, one-pagers were created to raise awareness of fruit and nut bearing trees and how they can be used in recipes. HHO is self-funded with revenues generated from their tree sales. They sell trees from “local-when-possible” tree producers, and encourage the community to “Plant for Tomorrow” by purchasing trees as gifts, or donations.
- Not Far From The Tree: Not Far From The Tree harvests urban fruit on private property in Toronto, splitting harvests evenly amongst the homeowner, the volunteers and local food agencies (food banks, shelters, community kitchens, etc). In 2010, the harvest reached over 8,000 clients and 25 different social agencies. Not Far From The Tree has previously worked with councillors to increase public communication and access to various resources.
Community Food Assessments
To help address food access issues, like food deserts and food insecurity, many communities within Canada and Ontario are undertaking community food assessments. These assessments normally rely on a participatory and collaborative process to engage the community in a discussion of food-related issues to identify assets and barriers to food access with the objective of prioritizing actions to address food insecurity at the local or regional level.
- Community Food Assessment, Thunder Bay: Beginning in 2004, this project was launched by the Thunder Bay Food Action Network to develop a profile of community characteristics and food resources. It also sought to assess household food security, food resource accessibility, food availability and affordability and community food production resources. The assessment was carried out through a collaborative effort of various partners including students from Lakehead University, service providers, food program users and farmers. Funding was provided by the Ontario Trillium Foundation which supported a coordinator for the project from January until September 2004.
- Vancouver Food System Assessment: In 2005, Western Economic Diversification Canada, the City of Vancouver’s Department of Social Planning, Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development, and the Environmental Youth Alliance funded a Vancouver Food System Assessment. The project investigated the status of the food system and encouraged solutions that were focused on local food systems. The assessment found that the City had the potential to grow as much food in the city as in all the Fraser Valley (British Columbia’s pre-eminent agricultural region) combined, while addressing the food security challenges faced by low-income neighbourhoods (where it was found that food costs accounted for 7.3% of a wealthy family’s budget versus 21.2% of the budget of a low income family). With the results of this assessment, recommendations were made to address issues such as the need for enhanced training opportunities, consumer education on ‘buy local’, improved access to retail stores and farmers’ markets, the creation of more community gardens and linking charitable food providers with social enterprise organizations.
- Tarasuk, V., Mitchell, A., Dachner, N. Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF). (2013). Household food insecurity in Canada 2011
- Mapping the evolution of ‘food deserts’ in a Canadian city: Supermarket accessibility in London, Ontario, 1961–2005, Larsen and Gilliland, 2008.
- Food Deserts and Priority Neighbourhoods in Toronto, Martin Prosperity Institute, 2010.
- Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, Healthy Weights Healthy Lives, 2004.
- Katzmarzyk PT, The Economic Costs Association with Physical Inactivity and Obesity in Ontario, The Health and Fitness Journal of Canada, 2011.
- Hunger Report 2013. Ontario Association of Food Banks.
- Muthuswamy, E. 2012. “Feeding Our Future: The First- and Second-Year Evaluation.” Toronto District School Board.
- Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty & Nutrition (1994). Nutrition Policy. and American Dietetic Association et al., (2003).
- FoodShare. 2010. “Ontario Online Polling Results.” Strategic Communications Inc.
- Bell, A., Dyment, J. 2006
- Katzmarzyk PT, The Economic Costs Association with Physical Inactivity and Obesity in Ontario, The Health and Fitness Journal of Canada, 2011.
- WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program Fact Sheet, United States Department of Agriculture, 2014.
- Wakefield, S., Yeudall, F., Taron, C., Reynolds, J. & A. Skinner. Growing Urban Health: Community Gardening in South-East Toronto. Health Promotion International, 2007.
- Community Food Assessment for Thunder Bay
- Herb Barbolet, et al., Vancouver Food System Assessment.