Can we end the cycle of child hunger?

In Toronto, 26.8 per cent of children — about one in four — live beneath the poverty line. That’s the highest percentage of poverty among urban centres in Canada. Along with poverty comes food insecurity; since 2008, the city’s inner suburbs have seen a 48 per cent increase in food bank use, including children.

Malika Favre art of white fork with black silhouette of children on UNIGNORABLE colour

Having a job is no longer enough to ensure food security. Factors such as precarious work and lack of affordable housing can impact a household’s ability to put food on the table. Imagine a City spoke to frontline community workers and poverty experts on the long-lasting side effects of hunger, as well as innovative programs that are helping to tackle this issue right here at home.

What are some of the root causes of child hunger in the GTA?

“We’re looking at a city where there are so many people who are struggling, but food insecurity becomes a by-product of that — it’s one of the symptoms of people who are income-insecure,” says Shoba Adore, executive director of United Way-supported Braeburn Neighbourhood Place. “It’s about affordable housing, decent wages, employment that’s not precarious.” Income insecurity leads to food insecurity, and it’s much more pervasive than many realize; even those with a job (or multiple jobs) don’t always have enough to eat on a regular basis.

“By the time they pay for their rent and transit there isn’t money for food,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lee Ford-Jones, project investigator at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. For many parents, she says not having enough money to feed their children is a terrible shame. They may “slink along to food banks” or deny the problem exists; in some cases, they keep their kids home from school if they don’t have lunch money.

What are the long-term effects of child hunger?

Research conducted by Ford-Jones and McMaster University’s Janice Ke found that food insecurity and hunger lead to a number of health-related issues. In children, it’s associated with delays in socioemotional, cognitive and motor development; higher levels of hyperactivity, inattention and poor memory; higher frequency of chronic illness; and increased risk of childhood obesity. For youth, there’s increased risk for depression and suicidal ideation, as well as mood, behaviour and substance abuse disorders.

“There are long-term impacts on children but also on the family — how parents basically sacrifice their own food and nutrition to provide food for their kids,” says Michael Polanyi, community worker for the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. That takes both a physical and psychological toll on parents and the family as a unit; in some cases, parents are under so much stress and depravation themselves that they’re not able to provide for the family.

What about school programs?

There are 180,000 children in Toronto accessing either snack or lunch programs in schools, “but certainly it’s a fraction of all children going to school,” says Polanyi. “Many countries have universal hot lunch programs, like France, where they provide nutritious meals for all the kids at lunchtime.” In Canada, there is no national strategy to provide students with snacks or hot lunches; programs are typically provided by charitable organizations.

Braeburn, for example, provides enriched snack programs during afterschool activities. And while many families visit the agency to access its food programs, Braeburn is also able to offer other ‘wraparound supports’ such as lunch-and-learns for students as well as tutoring and homework assistance. It also allows students to maintain their dignity and avoid embarrassment or shame. “We try to offer programs in a universal way — it’s open and you choose to come,” says Adore. “All of our programs are free, there’s no means testing, you’re not reporting on what your income is … so you’re getting lunch but you’re also doing your homework.”

What about community-based approaches?

Food banks can help with immediate needs, but community-based initiatives like The Stop Community Food Centre can empower vulnerable populations with longer-term solutions. “The Stop is a whole food program … where the community grows the food, harvests the food, prepares the food and serves the food,” says Ford-Jones.

Community gardens allow vulnerable populations to grow some of their own food, “but also gain some income through selling food locally through farmers’ markets,” says Polanyi. Community kitchens or food hubs can also provide access to healthy, low-cost food; some also teach basic nutrition and cooking skills. United Way-supported FoodShare, for example, works with schools and communities to deliver healthy food along with food education; its FoodLink program connects community members with local low-cost food programs, such as food banks or community gardens.

What are the next steps in eradicating child hunger?

While there’s a need to expand school nutrition programs and provide better access to affordable food, fighting child hunger and fighting poverty go hand in hand. Though the federal government is developing a poverty reduction strategy, experts agree there’s a need for more funding and more action. “It’s such a wise investment for us to make that will change the long-term costs to the healthcare system,” says Adore. “We feel like we’re in the Ministry of Prevention.”

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