Charity alone cannot ease food insecurity in Sudbury area: Board

Livable wages and guaranteed basic income are the way to address food insecurity, according to the board of Public Health Sudbury and Districts.

In its first meeting of 2023, the board of health passed a motion calling on the province to focus on keeping food affordable as a way to address growing food insecurity across Ontario.

According to Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, Sudbury's medical officer of health, public health boards across the province conduct annual surveys to assess the cost of food and how income affects a household's ability to follow nutritional guidelines.

"This is an important database of information to bring to light ... the challenges that are faced, using local data, with regards to food affordability and the issue of food insecurity in our area," she said.

"It also highlights the impact from a health perspective of food insecurity and highlights the fact that food insecurity is not so much a food issue as it is an income issue."

In her briefing note to the board, Sutcliffe noted that in 2022, the cost of food forced many households to choose between eating a healthy diet and paying for other core living expenses.

Since 2018, more than 16 per cent of households in Sudbury were considered "food insecure," meaning they had inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. Food insecure individuals are typically at a higher risk of diet-related health issues like diabetes, mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and other chronic conditions like arthritis and chronic pain.

Record high inflation rates, which have jacked up prices across the board, have worsened the crisis by raising the cost of food. In September 2022, the price of food was 11.5 per cent higher than in September 2021.

More than 67 per cent of Ontario households reliant on social assistance were food insecure in 2021. In her briefing note, Sutcliffe said current social assistance programs in the province are not enough to improve access for low-income individuals.

For example, a family of four receiving social support from Ontario Works has only $286 a month left over after food and rent to cover all other expenses, including transportation, clothing, and communications. An individual receiving Ontario Works would be $269 short each month.

With affordability at the centre of the issue, the board of Health agreed to shift its focus to income-based solutions to food insecurity.

"The recommended actions (include) reaffirming the board's support for the Association of Local Public Health Agencies' resolutions passed previously on living wage, minimum wage, and basic income guarantee," said Sutcliffe. "And further, for the work of Public health to intensify its focus from not so much the charity-based, but more income-based solutions so that it can be "sustainable for the future."

In response to the motion, board member Al Sizer, a City of Greater Sudbury councillor, said he would like to see a greater integration between the two approaches to address food insecurity locally.

"There's so many different groups involved, between the community gardens, urban farming, local growers," he said. "There's quite a few and I'm hoping that we can work through Public Health and the City of Greater Sudbury to incorporate those into a more streamlined and more effective group so that we can bring these issues forward and look for the support to be able to get them somewhat off the ground in that they are more self-sustainable."

In response to a question about food programs in schools from member Mike Parent, another Greater Sudbury councillor, Sutcliffe said that while meal programs and food education are important, they aren't enough on their own.

"We are a health unit area that supports and runs programs that are actual provisions to schools," she said. "And then on the education side, there's two things: knowing and developing healthy habits and being able to follow the knowledge and those habits by having the income or the family food security to be able to do that."

Under the motion, which passed unanimously, the board agreed to recognize affordability as a root cause of food insecurity and called on the province to incorporate data to address costs and determine the adequacy of social assistance levels.

It also agreed to reaffirm its support of two resolutions - Minimum Wage that is a Living Wage and Basic Income Guarantee - from the Association of Local Public Health Agencies.

In addition, it agreed to intensify its work with local partners to focus on initiatives ranging from food charity to income-based solutions.

The motion will be shared with area partners, Ontario boards of health, and relevant provincial government ministers, to reiterate their position publicly.

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Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star