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Food Security Essential to the Heart Health of Ontarians

“Food Security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” 

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario promotes nutritious, healthy eating in order prevent the development of heart disease which is also known to reduce the risk of other chronic diseases including diabetes and cancer.  Research has shown that independent of other risk factors, diets rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains may decrease your risk of heart disease by as much as 30%. Nutrition is also important for the development and ability of our children to learn and reach educational achievements. Many Ontarians lack affordable access to basic nutritious necessities that make up a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables.

A national poll conducted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada revealed that 68% of Canadians identified price as "extremely" or "very important" when choosing which items make it into their grocery cart. Further, almost half (47%) of Canadians, regardless of where they live, report going without fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products, whole grain products, meat, fish or seafood because they are too expensive.

Food Security in Ontario
Food insecurity is driven by poverty. According to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (2004), 8.45% of Ontario households meet the definition of “food insecure."

  • Food insecurity is greatest among households:
      with low income (almost half in the lowest category of income adequacy)
      dependent on social assistance (60% of those on social assistance)
      which do not own their dwelling (20% of those)
  • The highest levels of household food insecurity were reported for the Toronto (10.1%) and Northern Ontario (9.7%) health regions:
      regional variations in food insecurity appear to be a function of regional variations in income, income source, and home ownership.1

As one of two areas with almost 10% household food insecurity, northern communities face particular issues in securing adequate nutritional foods, particularly perishables, due to their relative isolation, the cost of transportation and the impact of development and agricultural policies on the capacity to grow locally.

The issue of food insecurity can be attributed to three basic causes: 

  • Affordability
  • Accessibility
  • Awareness

The current economic crisis is making food security a more widespread and urgent issue to address – a day-to-day reality for more Ontarians, especially those in single-industry towns. Food insecurity has a direct impact on long-term health outcomes and thus healthcare costs. It is therefore a good investment for governments to deal with this issue. We are pleased with the government’s commitment to reducing poverty in Ontario and its strategy outlined in Breaking the Cycle, released on December 4, 2008. This is a welcome beginning, but much more is needed to address food security and it should be a priority in the poverty reduction strategy.

Recommendations:
The Foundation believes that the Ontario government can take action to improve Ontarians’ access to healthy and nutritious foods by:

Affordability

  • Review and increase income supports to low-income households.
  • Study a subsidy program such as a food voucher program or direct subsidy model (triggered by % income spent on food based on modified food basket).
  • Review all government initiatives with a food security filter to ensure they support and not exacerbate food security issues.

Accessibility

  • Provide a provincial top-up to expand the Federal government’s Food Mail Program that services fly-in communities in Northern Ontario.
  • Review the potential to expand the program to “at risk” or priority communities in Southern Ontario to address communities that are suffering from food insecurity.
  • Advocate for the expansion of food sharing programs such as the Good Food Box program to target priority populations and neighbourhoods with a particular focus on First Nations and children. Advocate for the involvement of local food retailers to sell the subsidized boxes.
  • Expand eligibility and promotion of Active 2010 Communities in Action Fund’s support of community-based, healthy-food programs, such as growing local, preparation of traditional foods, community farmer’s markets, nutrition programs, community gardens and greenhouses.
  • Build on the Healthy Food for Healthy Schools Act to include a comprehensive school food policy to make healthy eating the easy choice for all students.

Awareness

  • Expand the Northern Ontario Fruits and Vegetables Program (NFVP) from two to all seven district health units in Northern Ontario. Review the potential to expand the program to other priority “at risk” communities across the province and to include other nutritious foods.
  • Increase food literacy for families and children by adding food preparation and nutrition education courses to after-school and community programming, and add back food preparation courses to the high school curriculum.
  • Conduct research and program evaluation into efficacy of dollars spent on programs that reduce food insecurity.


1 Analysis of Ontario sample in Cycle 2.2 of the Canadian Community Health Survey (2004) , J. Vogt and V. Tarasuk, December 18, 2007 http://www.phred-redsp.on.ca/Docs/Reports/CCHSReport/CCHS%20Cycle%202%202%20Ontario%20Nutrition%20Data%20Analysis%20Project_Full%20Report.pdf