Food insecurity: an increasing problem


Scripture: Mark 10: 35-45; Food insecurity. Nigel Bunce

Food insecurity is when families don’t have access to affordable, accessible, and abundant food.  But we can’t blame the price of food when a family must choose between groceries and paying the rent or providing computer access for their children.  The problem is much larger. It involves wages and salaries, housing costs, and more.

James and John make a request

Gotta love those disciples! The way Mark portrays them gives us all hope. They are so very human, yet Jesus puts up with them.

A few weeks ago, Jan spoke about a passage of Scripture in which we met them arguing about which of them was the greatest. Today, we find James and John wanting to sit one on each side of Jesus – i.e., getting the best seats at the heavenly banquet.

Not surprisingly, the other disciples were more than a little ticked off at James’ and John’s attitude. So Jesus had to pour oil on the troubled waters. He reminded them all that God’s kingdom is not an earthly empire, like the Roman one.

Earthly empires are all about who gets privilege and power.  In contrast, he said that those who are great in God’s kingdom are servants to others. God’s kingdom is about service, not wielding power.

However, it’s easy to understand James’s and John’s attitude. They were part of an “inner circle” of disciples.  Along with Simon Peter, they saw the Transfiguration. Likewise, when Jesus cured the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, Mark was clear that he allowed only the core group to be present. Later, that core group got to accompany Jesus when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

What is food insecurity?

I used the expression “seats at the heavenly banquet” deliberately. As a segué to something that caught my eye in the Globe & Mail on Thanksgiving Monday. An article on food insecurity by Lori Nikkel of the Toronto food rescue organization, Second Harvest.

Nikkel defined food security as having affordable, accessible, and abundant food. It’s opposite, food insecurity, affected 1.2 million Canadian households in 2019 [Stats Canada data]. This problem has got much worse during the pandemic. Food banks are now struggling because of all the new clients that need help.

We at St. George’s help with this effort through our support of Mission Services in Hamilton. But why is this problem endemic and so severe? From her perspective as CEO of Second Harvest, Nikkel drew attention to the huge problem of food waste. Food that ends up rotting in landfills.

Food insecurity: more than just the price of food

But, to my mind, there’s another aspect to the problem. Food in Canada is simultaneously very expensive and reasonably cheap. How can this be?

The news media talk about ‘skyrocketing food prices’ in the past year. As much as 3-5%. If you are food insecure, that’s a disaster. It puts more and more food items out of reach.

For the other perspective, Maureen and I came to Canada in 1967. We were broke, so we kept careful records of what we spent. I recall that our average food bill was $13 per week. According to the Consumer Price Index, what might have cost $1.00 in 1967, costs $7.79 in 2021, an inflation factor of almost eight

It’s hard to separate out food price inflation, from CPI, but the trend seems to be not too different. That would translate $13 in 1967 to about $100 today. By chance, that’s roughly what Michelle and I spend at the grocery store each week. Again, we are two frugal adults, with no kids at home.

Other household expenses influence food insecurity

So I conclude that the problem of food insecurity isn’t due to the cost of food per se. Instead, I suspect that it has much more to do with other household expenses.

Housing costs can genuinely be said to have “skyrocketed” in recent years. Many families spend much more than the one third of their income on rents and mortgage payments that people considered “normal” years ago..

Add to that, costs that didn’t even exist in 1967. Internet and cell phone charges have gone from non-existent to luxury, to essential today. Few families spend less than $100/month on IT. You have to be a recluse to avoid these charges.

Not everyone has the luxury of living where multiple supermarkets compete on price

I’m trying to say that it’s unreasonable to blame the cost of food for food insecurity. That’s not true in northern communities, where the cost of transport makes fresh food completely unaffordable. Meanwhile, many farmers struggle to make a living, unless they are covered by supply management.

However, those of us who live in privileged towns like Milton, Burlington, and Guelph have the luxury of multiple supermarkets. They compete fiercely to bring us fresh produce from all over the world.. Who could have imagined being able to buy mangoes in 1967? And, for $1 each (12¢ in 1967)?

To return to Lori Nikkel’s article

Lori Nikkel suggests that we need “a plan to include enacting policies at all levels of government [with] investments in distribution infrastructure.”  And, “It is time for bold political action to solve this problem.”

Additionally, she wrote, “The system needs to change – and fast – so that we can reduce food insecurity and cut down on waste at the same time.” I completely agree with Nikkel that food waste contributes to food insecurity. It raises costs and is dreadful on the climate change front. Reducing waste and improving distribution are worthy objectives.

Furthermore, she wrote, “It means a circular food economy rather than the linear one we have, which has proven to be a failure …” But nowhere does she define what a circular food economy actually is.

To sum up

However, I can’t blame the price of food when a family must choose between groceries and paying the rent or providing computer access for their children. We in Canada have a much larger problem on our hands. It involves wages and salaries, housing costs, and more.

And meanwhile, almost all of us at St. George’s have the privilege of not having to worry much about rising food costs. For us, they are little more than an inconvenience. Therefore, we must continue to play our small part in lowering food insecurity by supporting Mission Services’ food bank. Amen.