Thoughts on Food and Connection In and After Crisis
October 24, 2021
This excerpt from Chromatic: Ten Meditations on Crisis in Art and Letters is written by 2020 Wall Scholar and Professor of Food, Nutrition and Health, Jennifer Black. Illustrations are by Lay Hoon Ho. Chromatic is available for preorder through UBC Press. Order your copy today!
Food is a basic necessity but also the glue that binds us to family and community. Eating is a vital part of our daily routines and holiday rituals, and a way that we can express care for others and nurture our bodies. Yet national survey data from 2017–2018 finds that over one in eight Canadian households reported experiencing food insecurity, defined as having inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints.
Researchers sometimes categorize food insecurity on a spectrum. Its mildest form begins with the nagging worry that food might run out without money to access more. The next stage demands a compromise in the amount or quality of food available. In its most severe forms, food insecurity can mean missing meals or going whole days without food. In my work as a dietitian and nutrition researcher, I have documented food insecurity’s brutal toll on the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of people who cannot care for their food needs with dignity. I have also come to see how food can heal and connect and build relationships among people and with the land.
When COVID-19 struck in 2020, rates of food insecurity surged, leaving over 5 million Canadians worried that they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their families. The communities most affected by food insecurity also faced higher risks of COVID-19 exposure and suffered the deepest economic and mental health consequences of the economic and social lockdowns.
Even before the pandemic, access to sufficient food was a challenge for many Canadians, particularly families with children; single mothers; residents of northern communities; people with disabilities, on social assistance, with low incomes, living in isolation, or lacking material assets or community supports; and Black, Indigenous, and other racialized Canadians. Despite common stereotypes about people living in poverty, the majority of food insecure Canadians are employed and actively contribute to the workforce but do not earn enough income to meet their food needs.
While many higher-waged and professional workers were able to work from home during the pandemic, it was many of these low-paid and precarious workers — particularly women and younger people — who endured sudden job losses and cuts to their working hours, pushing them ever further from the security of knowing they could access the foods they need. While COVID-19 has helped shine a new light on some of these struggles through research and media coverage, many stories remain untold and invisible, including those of refugees and undocumented workers, some of them filling essential roles working in Canada’s food system.
To support struggling families, the federal government quickly rolled out a variety of income support programs, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, tax credits, child benefit payments, and wage subsidies for employers, and we have much to learn about the extent to which these supports buffered people from the storm.
But it’s clear that efforts to ensure adequate income for all to meet their food needs were not enough, and that some investments that offered ‘feel-good vibes’ ran counter to evidence about what meaningfully helps. For example, in April 2020 and then again in October 2020 — preceding the Easter and Thanksgiving holidays — the federal government announced unprecedented funding of $100 million each time to fund food banks and charitable food providers. Rather than ensuring adequate income supports were in place, the prime minister and other elected leaders publicly urged people in need to turn to food banks and asked Canadians to chip in extra cans for food drives.
But less than one in ten food insecure Canadians ever accessed a food bank during the pandemic, and years of research show that those who do rarely have their basic needs met by charity-based efforts. Food banks have simply not been an effective or dignified solution to food insecurity. Many neighbourhoods don’t have an accessible food bank or one with convenient hours. Food banks seldom have the quantity or variety of foods that people need or want and are a strategy of last resort used mainly by those in the direst of straits.
Still, food served as an important source of comfort and connection during COVID-19 lockdowns. People took up gardening and baking at astonishing rates, and some families enjoyed additional time preparing and sharing meals at home with loved ones. Others learned how to access groceries through delivery services or cared for elders or vulnerable neighbours by delivering food to those sheltering at home.
But COVID-19 also taught us important lessons about the essential and often undervalued work of those responsible for food work, including those who grow, process, cook, and serve the foods we rely on. The care and effort required for feeding others was already well known to the many women and caregivers suddenly charged with feeding their families around the clock as schools and daycares closed, many of whom were also juggling working for pay and supporting other vital community care roles. Other food workers, some of whom experienced food insecurity first-hand, faced direct exposure to COVID-19 outbreaks as they filled essential workforce jobs of feeding the elderly in long-term care or working as farm labourers or as employees in meat-packing and food-processing plants.
Will COVID-19 help policy makers and those who vote for them to value and ensure the right to food for all and to recognize that the land, water, and people who feed us are all essential? To fill the holes made clear by COVID-19, post-pandemic policies will need to guarantee that everyone has sufficient income to meet their food needs with dignity and that the work and care required to feed is a more evenly shared responsibility.