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Seeking an Rx for food insecurity: How different countries are tackling the same problem

People walk past a Wefood supermarket in Copenhagen in 2016. The supermarket sells deeply discounted food items that are damaged or near expiry. (Soeren Bidstrup/AFP via Getty Images)

People walk past a Wefood supermarket in Copenhagen in 2016. The supermarket sells deeply discounted food items that are damaged or near expiry.

Photo: (Soeren Bidstrup/AFP via Getty Images)

RCI

Last year, 1 in 5 households in Canada were food insecure, new report says

Putting food on the table is getting harder for Canadians across the country.

In 2022, food insecurity in Canada rose to 17.8 per cent , or almost one in five households, according to a report released in November by PROOF (new window), a food insecurity research group at the University of Toronto. In October, a report from Food Bank Canada (new window) showed usage was at its highest level since tracking began in 1989.

Valerie Tarasuk, a U of T researcher at PROOF, says food insecurity is spreading because incomes can't keep up with the rising cost of living.

Results from PROOF's 2022 study showed the highest levels of food insecurity in Canada since tracking began in 2005 — and hardest hit are families and individuals who rely on social assistance, Tarasuk said.

Reversing course comes down to political action, she said, but no one's doing anything about it.

This problem isn't going to fix itself.

Many of you have emailed asking what Canada can do to ensure no one goes hungry. Here are some initiatives from around the world that help families access food.

Denmark's Wefood supermarket

Denmark's Wefood chain of grocery stores tackles both food insecurity and food waste.

It sells items like dented canned goods and misshapen fruit, donated by farmers, importers, exporters and local supermarkets. Prices are 30 to 70 per cent lower than traditional supermarkets.

In the past year, Wefood has diverted 420 tonnes of food waste (new window), with all profits going to charity, according to ACT Alliance, a faith-based charity coalition that includes Wefood's founder DanChurchAid.

Matthew Little, an assistant professor of public health and social policy at the University of Victoria, said he welcomes Denmark's unique approach to address food insecurity, but cautions such initiatives don't address the root causes of food insecurity.

If people who are low income and food insecure are only able to access foods that have been discarded by other people ... what does that tell us about our broader society, if that's the only food that people who are low income are actually able to access? he said.

Food sold by Wefood is donated by farmers, importers, exporters and local supermarkets. Profits go to charity. (WeFood/Facebook)

Food sold by Wefood is donated by farmers, importers, exporters and local supermarkets. Profits go to charity.

Photo: (WeFood/Facebook)

France's food waste ban

Little said that food waste is a huge problem. Globally right now, about a third of the food that is produced never actually gets consumed by anybody, he said.

In France, where more than 10 million tonnes (new window) of food is thrown away every year, a law enacted in 2016 orders grocery stores to donate food that would otherwise be discarded. 

The French Federation of Food Banks (new window) said the law plays a crucial role in the grocery-store-to-charity food chain. Since coming into effect, donations to food banks are up more than 20 per cent, (new window) according to French government data. 

But Little said banning food waste at grocery stories doesn't ensure access to high quality, nutritious food for those who need it.

The law has further shortcomings (new window), including a lack of enforcement — the law includes penalties of up to $112,000 but no fines have been issued — and its exclusion of the vast amount of food waste that comes from sources like agriculture, food processing, consumers and restaurants. 

The Finnish safety net

In the 2022 Global Food Security Index, Finland was ranked as having the highest  (new window)level of food security in the world. The country's consistent investment in social assistance and affordable housing has kept hunger statistics below three per cent since 2001 (new window)

Education initiatives, like Food Waste Week (new window), encourage Finns to cut down on food waste.

Tiina Silvasti, a professor of social and public policy at the University of Jyväskylä, says the country's strong welfare state has been key to maintaining food security.

I think it is correct to say that our cultural values align with the Nordic welfare state model and especially in practical social policies, she said. 

But Finland hasn't been able to escape the impact of rising food prices. A recent survey (new window) by the Society for Gerontological Nutrition in Helsinki shows cost is impacting how seniors shop, with 40 per cent planning to lower their intake of fruits, vegetables and meat because of food inflation.

That doesn't surprise Silvasti, who says low-income pensioners are one of the traditional groups in bread lines and in food banks in Finland.

Food prescriptions in the U.S.

Doctors and health-care providers in the U.S. are writing food prescriptions to improve the health of patients with chronic diseases and low incomes. 

Only one in 10 American adults eat enough fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Food prescriptions allow health-care providers to give fruit and vegetable vouchers to people with diet-related diseases like diabetes, Little said. 

Little sees long-term benefits of a prescriptive approach to food insecurity.

The cheapest food tends to be the least healthy food, so food prescriptions try to bridge that gap, said Little.

There are a few Canadian projects exploring this area. In Guelph, Ont., the community health centre has collaborated (new window) with a local grocer to research how food prescriptions can help patients. 

Little, who is also involved in pilot food prescription programs, says early results are promising. 

We see huge improvements in fruit and vegetable consumption — usually about a doubling of fruit and vegetable consumption overall — but somewhat less consistent results around looking at health metrics, he said.

What Canada is doing

In September, the Canadian government secured support from major retailers  (new window)to work toward stabilizing food prices. 

So far, only Sobeys (new window), one grocer out of Canada's five major chains, said it would freeze prices over the holidays, a practice it does annually.

Experts say competition will help stem rising prices.

The biggest tool that the government has — and it's really the only tool that the government has — is to try and create a climate of competition, said Concordia University economics lecturer Moshe Lander.

The federal government says it's also working toward creating a national school food program. Canada is the only G7 country without one. 

Debbie Fields, a co-ordinator for the Coalition for Healthy School Food, told CBC News the program is not in exchange for adequate incomes or welfare reform. It's more of a program to support all families.

In April, the B.C. government announced (new window) it is committing $214 million over three years to support school food programs. Other provinces, including P.E.I., have a student food program that is available for a fee.

While providing students with lunches is a way to make sure children don't go hungry at school, Tarasuk, the PROOF researcher, said it won't make a big enough difference to food insecurity at a population level. 

There's no way that is going to be a powerful enough infusion of material resources to those families to change their reality.

Rahma Shafi (new window)Britnei Bilhete (new window) · CBC News

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