Thousands of Midland, Penetanguishene residents struggling with food insecurity

Jane Shrestha believes more needs to be done to try and address the ‘mind-boggling’ food-insecurity issues plaguing the Simcoe Muskoka region.

Shrestha is a public health nutritionist with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and someone who is passionate about trying to address the food struggles that are prevalent in Simcoe Muskoka, Ontario and all across Canada.

According to data collected by the health unit, 70,000 people in the region deal with some form of food insecurity every single day.

“About one in eight households, 12 per cent of the population, are experiencing some degree of food insecurity,” said Shrestha. “For our area that works out to be 70,000, or the combined population of Orillia, Collingwood and Huntsville. It’s mind-boggling.”

Food insecurity is when someone has inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints.

“It is rooted in poverty,” said Shrestha. “It is essentially having no money for food.”

Month after month, over 5,700 residents across Midland, Penetanguishene, Tay and Tiny struggle with having to choose between feeding their family, paying rent or purchasing basics like clothing and school supplies.

“Since about 2005, food insecurity has flat lined at about 12 per cent,” said Shrestha. “For as long as Statistics Canada has been measuring household food insecurity in Canada through the Canadian Community Health survey, things really have not budged.”

Steady statistics over the past decade show that traditional strategies such as food banks and food box programs might not be having as big an impact on addressing food issues as everyone thinks.

“Food banks and the communities that support them work really, really hard to try and address the urgent food needs. But only about one in four food insecure people visit a food bank and for those that do, when the food is gone the problem of food insecurity is still there,” said Shrestha.

While emergency food helps people out in the short term, Shrestha believes income-based solutions are needed to address the underlying issue, which is a lack of money for food.

In Midland 18.6 per cent of residents are considered after-tax low-income earners, up from 11.1 per cent in 2006. In Penetanguishene 16.1 per cent of residents fall within the low-income bracket (up from 8.7), while Tay has 13.4 per cent (up from 5.5) and Tiny has 12 per cent (up from 5.7).

The health unit has launched a campaign calling for a continuation of the basic income pilot, a living wage and an increase in social assistance. Nurses, nutritionists and other staff have been making presentations to area councils, informing them on the situation that exists and asking them to advocate for better provincial policies.

“We are asking for advocacy to encourage legislations and policies to create good jobs with regular hours and benefits,” said program manager Christine Bushey. “We need to look at income solutions. We are also asking for advocacy related to the basic income pilot that has been in place for a year and a half.”

The Liberal government launched a basic income pilot project in 2017, which will see more than 4,000 people receive up to $17,000 a year ($24,000 for couples). Another $2,000 will be paid to fill out surveys as part of a control group. Participants with disabilities will get an extra $6,000.

Shrestha believes there are already a variety of examples, which show basic income can have a direct impact on food insecurity.

“We know that when low income individuals aged 60 to 64 reach the age of 65 and start collected a government pension the rates of food insecurity are cut in half,” she said.

The unit’s push to try and solve local food insecurity is fuelled by its direct impact on the health care system. Someone who is constantly stressed and worrying about food tends to have more health issues, putting more of a strain on the health care system. The most food insecure individuals can cost the health care system 121 per cent more than someone in a stable setting.

“Someone who doesn’t worry about food on a day-to-day basis might use up about $1,600 a year in health care costs, whereas with someone who is food insecure tends to use about $4,000 a year in health care,” said Bushey.

According to the unit, food insecurity issues are known to have a huge impact on physical, mental and social health. One in three adults hospitalized due to mental health problems are from food insecure homes.

“The stress of struggling with food insecurity and the other circumstances that lead people into those situations really take a toll on mental health,” said Shrestha.

Penetanguishene and the Township of Tiny have already received presentations from the health unit, while Midland and Tay Township are scheduled to hear from delegations in late August and September.