October 10th, 2013
Vue Weekly October 2013
Lately, Edmonton has been talking a lot about food—how we grow it, how we eat it and how we buy it. On October 12, food activists will be taking the conversation to the street, marching down Whyte Avenue for World Food Day. There’ll be a smorgasbord of food-issues represented, ranging from GMOs and GEs, pesticides, going vegan, eating organic, to protecting honeybees and local farmers.
“Every citizen has the right to access safe, clean, natural food,” says Dana Blackwell, an organizer of World Food Day Edmonton. She expects approximately 1000 people to rally at End of Steel Park around noon on October 12, where there will be scheduled speakers, musicians, local food groups manning information tables and a march to protest against what they characterize as the shady ethics and business practices of agricultural-giant Monsanto.
But while the foodies are banging their pots and pans, thousands of their fellow Edmontonians are quietly struggling to get the basics. For the residents earning low incomes, the working poor and those living on social assistance, a healthy diet is often a luxury. A Statistics Canada survey on eating habits says 58 percent of low-income families eat less than the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables; 78 percent of children in low-income families don’t get enough milk products.
Alberta is the richest province in Canada, but is dead average nationally for food insecurity. In 2011, 12.3 percent of Alberta, nearly half a million people, struggled to consistently put food on the table. With all this wealth, how can this be? According to a 2012 report by the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute, our oil-boom province has the highest income disparity in the country—the top half of earners take home 87 percent of the money and the bottom 10 percent of families just 1.7 percent.
Although Edmontonians enjoy one of the highest average income levels in the country, more than 20 percent make $15 an hour or less. Alberta, for all its money, has the highest percentage of employed people using food banks in all of Canada. And in a 2004 food-security report, Health Canada reported that an unbelievable 84 percent of Albertans who listed social assistance as their main source of income experience food insecurity, well above the national average of 59.7 percent.
Consider that rents in the city are going up—the average two-bedroom apartment costs more than $1000 per month, up 4.2 percent from the year before—and so is the price of food. Government stats say it costs $210 each week for a family of four in Edmonton to maintain a nutritious diet, up from $133 per week in 2003.
These numbers add up to tough choices for the 123 000 people in Edmonton classified as low-income: will it be vegetables or rent?
“A common assumption is that lower-income households would be able to afford healthy, nutritious food if they used their limited food dollars wisely. However, this belief is not supported by the evidence,” says Suzanne Galesloot, a registered dietician and Public Health Nutrition Lead with Alberta Health Services. “In fact, regular monitoring of food costs … consistently demonstrates that a basic healthy diet is unlikely to be affordable for vulnerable individuals and families.”
For lower-income folks, the expense of transportation and rent are two major barriers to buying healthy food says Tamisan Bencz-Knight, resource development coordinator with Edmonton’s Food Bank. She’d like to see investments in public transit and affordable housing in Edmonton. If you have less money, Bencz-Knight explains, you’re less likely to drive. That means getting to a supermarket, with much cheaper and healthier food than a convenience store, is a hassle—especially for the seven months of the year that Edmonton is tundra. And if you’re taking the bus, odds are you’ll only buy what you can carry home. So bulky fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and milk will likely be replaced by cheap processed foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt—potato chips are cheaper than broccoli and last much longer on the shelf.
The consequences of poor nutrition are dire, both to individuals and society. An unhealthy diet high in fat and sugar is linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes—diseases that cost Canada tens of billions of dollars in annual health-care expenses. The problem is complex, as hard to solve as poverty itself, but one thing is clear: poorer people aren’t eating well, and we’re all paying for it.
Edmonton’s Food Bank north-end warehouse was buzzing last week when I visited. Volunteers zoomed by on pallet jacks, ferrying pallets of yogurt or massive crates of eggs out of freezers as big as houses. Encouragingly, Alberta had an 8.9 percent decrease in food-bank use from 2011 to 2012—but our province still had the highest increase in food-bank use in the whole country, a staggering 60 percent jump from 2008 to 2012. But thankfully, Edmonton has agencies and volunteers who are as serious as the problem.
Bencz-Knight, who’s been with the food bank since 1988, points to the fresh food—lettuce, spinach, yogurt, even pomegranates—that are going into the 14 000 food hampers they’ll be making in October.
“There’s this myth that the food bank only gives away garbage food,” she says. “But that’s not true. We do everything we can to make sure that the people we help get fresh, healthy food.”
Edmonton’s Food Bank gave away 3.2-million kilograms of food last year, worth $17 million. Approximately 80 percent of the food they get is from the food industry, but increasingly, Edmontonians are finding creative ways to help. Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton gleans apples and berries from local trees that wouldn’t otherwise be harvested, donating a portion to the food bank. The Plant a Row, Grow a Row program encourages locals to plant a little extra in their garden to donate to the food bank; major participants include the City of Edmonton, the Muttart Conservatory and Fort Edmonton Park.
Lady Flower Gardens, a five-acre plot owned by Riverbend Gardens in northeast Edmonton, offers its rich, fertile soil to the city’s most needy. Volunteers come from inner-city agencies, including Hope Mission, The Mustard Seed and Bissell Centre to plant their own crops, tend them, then harvest the vegetables so they can eat or sell the surplus. Lady Flower donated 4900 kilograms of root vegetables to the food bank, as evidenced by the dozens of duffel-bag-sized sacks of potatoes and carrots scattered throughout the warehouse.
Then there are the city’s food co-ops, community gardens and collective kitchens—all efforts to help people buy, grow and cook their own nutritious food. But these volunteer-run programs can only deal with the symptoms of a larger problem. Until income inequality is brought into line, Edmonton’s most vulnerable will have hunger pangs for fresh, healthy food.
“There will always be people who need our support,” Bencz-Knight says. “I don’t think we’re going to work ourselves out of a job.”
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