Experts say the ongoing need to end food insecurity has intensified amid the COVID-19 pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, experts say it has reinforced the long-standing need to end food insecurity in Toronto and beyond. Nick Westoll reports.

In the North York neighbourhood of Parkway Forest after a decade of booming growth, approximately 20,000 residents will see two new grocery stores opening in their neighbourhood next year where just one small local independent market currently exists.

While the move to improve access to healthy food options in a community where it’s currently limited, experts said it’s a symptom of the much larger, ongoing problem of food insecurity.

“It’s a huge deal for this neighbourhood,” Coun. Shelley Carroll told CityNews on Friday.

“This is a neighbourhood that deals with hunger issues and access issues, sometimes they’re the same thing. It’s not just a matter of whether you can afford the food, but can you get to it.”

T&T Supermarket is set to open next winter at CF Fairview Mall close to the Don Mills subway station and a FreshCo will open in Parkway Forest, which is roughly bounded by Don Mills Road, Sheppard Avenue East, Highway 404 and Highway 401.

Carroll said growth in the area has been explosive over the past decade, noting the population in the area was roughly around 8,000. With the growth, she said amenities like grocery stores aren’t mandated under provincial planning legislation.

However, even with the grocers set to open in the near future, she conceded affordability remains a major problem for many — particularly around issues involving housing.

“They can’t afford the food because they can’t afford their housing,” Carroll said while also referencing past efforts to bring a food bank and food hub to the community for those in need.

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Paul Taylor, the executive director of FoodShare Toronto — an organization focused on food justice, said while there is a need to connect people to healthy food, there needs to be a major rethink about deferring to food charities to address food insecurity.

“Opening a new supermarket doesn’t change the income levels who are struggling with access in their community,” he said, highlighting how Black and Indigenous peoples see disproportionate levels of food insecurity.

“Any of our interventions around food and challenging food insecurity, if they don’t deal with racism and white supremacy they’re actually ineffective at again supporting folks made most vulnerable.

“Food insecurity is about dealing with housing, is about dealing with income, is about dealing with racism, these are the key pieces and if we don’t we’re just going to see these issues get worse.”

PROOF, an interdisciplinary research team made up of post-secondary personnel including from the University of Toronto, researches issues surrounding food insecurity, which is defined as having inadequate access to food due to financial constraints.

The team, along with Taylor and others, have been calling on governments to help boost wages for residents with lower incomes so they can buy healthy food items versus relying on donations to food charities. Parts of those calls to action include raising the minimum wage ($15 an hour as of 2022) to a living wage (pegged at being around $22.08) and having guaranteed basic incomes.

“The (current) minimum wage legislates poverty,” Taylor said.

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, said data has shown roughly one in seven Toronto residents face food insecurity. She agreed with Taylor about rethinking food and affordability, saying it should be treated as a public health prevention measure.

“Every time we talk about the need for income-based responses and people say we can’t afford them, I just want to push back and say we can’t afford what we’re doing right now. We’re diminishing people’s potential and also wasting a lot of money on health-care budgets that are ballooning,” Tarasuk said.

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When it comes to homes with Black residents, Tarasuk said data found the likelihood of experiencing food insecurity increased more than three-and-a-half times. She also said more than a third of the same homes had children who were likely to experience food insecurity. In terms of what’s behind disproportionate levels, Tarasuk said more race-based data collection is needed.

“There is a chronic problem and so it needs a long-term solution. It’s not like we need emergency responses … we need long-term thinking because it’s the long-term thinking that gets us back on track where we don’t have these horrific health care problems,” she said.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Tarasuk said the public heard about many instances of employees doing precarious work who ended up going to work because they didn’t have paid sick leave and couldn’t afford to stay home.

“If somebody had gone to those same people and measured their food insecurity, trust me they would be food insecure households — no question. Those are exactly the conditions of work associated with food insecurity,” she said.

“Those work issues have also been disproportionately experienced by racialized groups and that again speaks to this intersection of poverty, systemic racism, and problems like food insecurity. It shined a light on that.”

Taylor said it’s up to the public to demand greater action from politicians to address all the issues surrounding food insecurity.

“The price of inaction of not dealing with food insecurity is that this country will become unliveable for more and more people,” he said.

Meanwhile, Carroll said she agrees there needs to be comprehensive approach to fixing the problems. As part of the recovery from COVID-19, she added there needs to be thought about access and supply.

“As much as we’re doing everything we can to incentivize businesses to recover from the pandemic, when we say build back better across the globe what we mean is we also have to make ourselves less vulnerable going into this pandemic,” Carroll said.

“All of these things really need to happen at the same time. We can’t focus on one, we have to give energy to all.”

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