Food prices are not the only obstacle to achieving food security: Root causes include systemic barriers

Increasing food prices and stagnant incomes have been identified as major obstacles to achieving food security. About one in six, or 15.9 per cent, of households in Canada experience food insecurity.

Economic barriers like food prices are not the only obstacles to food security. Our study, published by Food Secure Canada, outlines that systemic barriers like colonialism, racism and other systems of injustice are among the root causes of food insecurity in Canada.

According to the
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food security requires economic, physical and social access to food.

Economic access involves factors such as income, poverty and food affordability. Physical access is related to infrastructure and facilities like roads and transportation. Social access focuses on ensuring people have access to all the necessary resources within society for nutritious and culturally appropriate foods. Food insecurity happens if any of these paths fail.

The interlinked barriers to food security

Our research reveals three major barriers to accessing food:

  • affordability
  • policies that perpetuate wealth and income disparity, and
  • systemic forms of discrimination like colonialism and racism.

The findings demonstrate that those living with a low income demand long-term solutions that comprehensively address all forms of food access.

Our study identified affordability as the main barrier to food access. The Consumer Price Index shows that food prices have increased by 10.4 per cent in 2022. Similarly, Canada’s Food Price Report in 2023 indicates that food prices remain a major concern for Canadians, increasingly putting pressure on household food security.

Income inequality in Canada has increased over the past 20 years. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is a policy targeted at reducing the effects of job disruption during the pandemic. For many food activists, CERB is an example of how a basic income measure can address income inequality. Recent statistics, however, show that it was ineffective in improving food security for those receiving the benefit.

This suggests that future policies need to better address income disparities. Policies also need to address why certain groups — like Indigenous people living off reserves, recent immigrants and people with disabilities — are consistently among those who are living with low incomes compared to other groups.

Discrimination, racism and colonialism

Canadian Wet'suwet'en indigenous first nation people fishing salmon by waterfall of Moricetown canyon, British Columbia.
Indigenous communities face challenges in maintaining practices like hunting and fishing, which are necessary for obtaining culturally appropriate food.

Various systems of discrimination such as racism and colonialism furthermore impact access to food. The highest percentage of individuals living in food-insecure households in Canada are Indigenous Peoples (30.7 per cent), Arab/West Asian (27.6 per cent) and Black (22.4 per cent). Our study also highlights that racism and colonialism significantly shape the relationship that Black, Indigenous and people of colour have with food. A study participant stated that:

“Colonialism has an ongoing impact on how we view food, portions, and our relationships with food that needs to be challenged in order to move towards sustainable consumption.”

Historic and ongoing colonialism has separated Indigenous Peoples from their land and food systems. This created significant barriers to accessing foods integral to Indigenous health and well-being. Indigenous communities also face challenges in maintaining practices like hunting and fishing, which are necessary for obtaining culturally appropriate food.

Read more:
Why are babies going hungry in a food-rich nation like Canada?

In addition, our study found that community initiatives led by Indigenous, Black and people of colour face barriers to receiving grants and funding due to the eurocentric structures and processes included in the application and reporting processes. This limits the number of culturally or heritage-specific programs that organizations can offer to their communities.

A road map towards food security for all

A drop in food prices might immediately address the lack of economic access to food but will not address the root causes of food insecurity. Addressing systemic barriers is vital to ensure economic, physical and social access to food for all people, at all times. These three types of food access are interconnected.

man standing in supermarket choosing food
Addressing systemic barriers is vital to ensure economic, physical and social access to food for all people, at all times.

Participants in our study highlighted some initiatives that are a step in the right direction. For instance, in 2021 the City of Toronto approved the Toronto Black Food Sovereignty Plan. This is a community-led, five-year program focused on addressing and creating long-term solutions to food insecurity among Black Torontonians.

One participant described its significance:

“(The plan) aims to champion the right of people of African descent to healthy and culturally-appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems and build their own institutions to advance community capacity and resilience for food access.”

Simply identifying systemic barriers to food security is not enough to create change. Long-term solutions will require elected officials and industry leaders to make significant institutional changes. As proposed in this Food and Agriculture Organization report, inclusivity and accounting for structural inequalities is required for tackling food insecurity.

Our study argues that any solution must be done in a democratic, just and inclusive manner. These approaches should consider Indigenous traditional knowledge and address racism, colonialism and other systems of discrimination. Achieving food security requires Canadians to focus on the underlying causes of food insecurity, not only saving money at the grocery store check-out counter.

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