More than 800 000 Canadians access food banks each month, and no province or territory is unaffected by food insecurity. As citizens of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, Canadians should not have to struggle to put healthy meals on their families’ tables — families living on minimum wage should not have to go into debt to benefit from a nutritious diet. We tend to concern ourselves with these issues during traditional “giving” holidays, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas. As a result, donations to food banks hit a lull during the summer, which unfortunately coincides with increased demand due to children no longer being enrolled in school-based meal programs. We need to be concerned year-round.
A lack of access to healthy food is not an individual problem; it is a public health issue. As high as the cost of nutritious foods may be, the public cost of not removing barriers to access will be much greater. People who are unable to eat a healthy diet are more likely to have chronic conditions, further burdening our already overwhelmed health care system. Children are particularly vulnerable; those who do not regularly eat nutritious meals are more likely to have poor growth and development, as well as learning disabilities.
A recent CMAJ research article explored the relationship between food insecurity and health care costs, and suggest the roles physicians, legislators and health care organizations can play in decreasing food insecurity among Canadians. Short-term measures, such as community-supported agriculture, food banks and programs such as Nutrition North Canada offer some relief, but a comprehensive national strategy to address the root causes of food insecurity, particularly poverty, has yet to be adopted. For efforts to be truly effective, they must be coordinated within and across levels of government, and they must target the underlying causes in addition to providing real-time relief.
Earlier this summer, one of Canada’s largest grocery chains announced that it would be closing 52 of its most unprofitable stores. One cannot help but worry that these closures could contribute to the growing problem of food deserts in areas that are already high risk, adding yet another roadblock to accessing affordable, nutritious food. As the summer draws to a close and we prepare for a federal election, we must ask our aspiring leaders how they will guarantee that every Canadian kitchen is well-stocked, regardless of postal code.