Is food insecurity just a neoliberal euphemism for hunger?

Written by Sarah-Jane Thiessen on September 24, 2013


The Fredericton Food Bank has transformed itself into the Greener Village: Community Food Centre. Greener Village celebrated its grand opening in early September, attracting hundreds of visitors who toured the facilities and enjoyed a local breakfast of pancakes and beans. Photo from the NB Food Security Action Network website.

Fredericton is all abuzz about food. We hear things like “buy local,” “buy what’s in season,” “buy organic”. We are encouraged to replace our lawns with vegetables, and to grow our own food. People are honing the almost forgotten skills of canning and preserving to enjoy the bounty of a fall harvest all year long. There is a growing culture of treasuring, not only the taste of food, but also where it comes from and how it’s cooked. Some people who are really into this call themselves “foodies,” others “locavores,” but regardless of what you call it, it’s likely delicious.

This growing awareness about food is considered a step towards a more environmentally sustainable and healthy food system. Nevertheless, there is more to food than where it’s grown and how it’s prepared. There is a part of the food movement that some “foodies” and locavores appear to be distinctly detached from. In most of these conversations about food and sustainability, we seldom discuss one of the most pressing issues in New Brunswick today–Who gets to eat this way?

Anyone who has been in a grocery store lately will likely have some idea. The local, organic foods are “fancy” foods, they are luxuries, they are expensive. Prohibitively so. Anyone who has ever been to a food bank or a community kitchen will understand what I mean. The food there is donated, much of it from food corporations. It is non-perishable, so it can stay on the shelf indefinitely. But its not as if the food on the shelves of a food bank gets the opportunity to collect dust.

This is where the culture of “foodies” is dangerous. It perpetuates notions of class, and social status through hierarchicalization of food. If we think about the words of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” and how they have been reduced to the popular idiom “you are what you eat” we quickly see how ingrained food is to identity, society and culture. How we get our food, where it comes from, what it is, and why we make those choices (if it is a choice), are all indicative of our individual personality and history, and also our place in greater social and political arrangements. As such, what does this say about people who aren’t afforded the opportunity to choose their food? Much less choose local, seasonal and organic foods.

Having the luxury of making food choices is called food security. Being worried about where your next meal might come from, running out of food and skipping meals for economic reasons are all indicative of food insecurity. According to the 2011 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) 16.5% of people in New Brunswick are food insecure. The rate for children in this province is 24.5%. The CCHS was used in a research and policy paper by Valerie Tarasuk, Andy Mitchell and Noami Dachner called “Household Food Insecurity in Canada” published in 2013 by PROOF. PROOF is a program of research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity. From a national perspective, NB ranks third on rates of food insecurity, behind Nunavut (36.5%) and narrowly below the Yukon (16.7%).

Food security was defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, as occurring when “all people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences…” (World Food Summit, 1996). We can break that definition down into the five “A’s”: Availability, Accessibility, Adequacy, Acceptability, and Agency.

Is food insecurity just a neoliberal euphemism for hunger? Perhaps it is, but it is also a more nuanced picture of how social, political and economic situations influence people’s relationship with food and to our food system. Food insecurity is definitely about hunger. Being hungry is how most people experience food insecurity. But it also looks at questions of not eating adequate food or balanced meals because of economic barriers. Skipping meals, cutting portion sizes and worrying that there wasn’t enough food to last. This presents not just a picture of hunger, but a picture of how the food system is broken in Canada. Often the numbers of “hungry people” are reported based on food bank usage, however the PROOF report found that only ¼ of food insecure people used food banks.

Food banks can be demoralizing and the charitable model hardly addresses the roots of food insecurity–namely income and housing. It must also be made clear that we are not talking just about people on social assistance and disability pensions–as our neo-liberal discourse would have us believe. The majority of food insecure people in Canada are employed. This reflects the last “A” of food security – Agency. When people are not afforded control in their decisions about food, what is it saying about how the rest of society perceives them?

Instead of just donating to the foodbank during the holidays (which, by the way, is still very important in our current food system), why not also participate in your food system. Join one of the many food organizations in your city, or start a community food hub. Start a garden and share the bounty with others. Food is not just for foodies, food is for everyone.

Sarah-Jane Thiessen is with the Campus Food Strategy Group.

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