Fixing lunches, nourishing democracy

Food insecurity and gender in Peterborough

New research shows that some mothers living on low-incomes in Peterborough are eating the least, last and less often in an effort to ensure there is enough food for their children.

“A lot of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of moms for feeding their families, and at the same time they are more at risk of not having the resources for it in terms of wages, job security, universal childcare, and food security,” says Trent University PhD student Mary Anne Martin, who is studying the household food work of mothers in the City and County and how community food programs like community gardens, good food box programs, and food literacy workshops can provide support.

Putting healthy food on the table is a struggle for many local families, and rates of food insecurity remain stubbornly high despite a vibrant mix of community food initiatives, advocacy efforts, collaboration and strong public engagement. In fact, Cancer Care Ontario found among all Ontario Health Units, Peterborough’s has the highest level of household food insecurity, at 16.5 percent.

“There is so much community food work going on in Peterborough, and there has been for a long time. Yet the rates of food insecurity for the area are huge,” Martin said, noting that food security levels in Peterborough City and County are also nationally recognized.

PROOF report coverThese conclusions are supported by PROOF, a national food insecurity research group based out of the University of Toronto, which found that Peterborough has the highest rate of food insecurity in Ontario.

According to the group PROOF, a national food insecurity research group based out of the University of Toronto, the experience of food insecurity is uniquely affected by gender, with substantial evidence available showing that “mothers routinely compromise their food intakes to shield their children from the physical, psychological and social effects of hunger.”

At the same time, PROOF’s research reveals that lone parent households headed by women are more likely to experience food insecurity. At 33.5% percent, the prevalence of food insecurity for this group is more than double the rate of households headed by single men.

Faced with these disparities in access to resources and supports, Martin argues that low-income mothers in Peterborough are “coping as best they can.” She emphasizes the “tremendous skills and resilience” that such women demonstrate in their efforts to ensure their families are happy and able to consume food that is healthy and nutritious.

“I think this points to the way that feeding their families, as an expression of love, involves emotional resources,” Martin said, adding that that they “are largely doing this through how they stretch a dollar.”

Martin’s research, based on interviews with 21 local mothers and representatives from 7 community food initiatives, found that mothers are using an array of strategies to meet their household food demands. These range from so-called ‘smart shopping’— cutting coupons, price matching, and budgeting — to collaborating with each other, exchanging resources, bartering, and making use of community food programs.

According to Martin, these findings suggest that governments must do more to address the root causes of food insecurity in Canadian households, a problem that can be traced directly to inadequate incomes.

“In order to address food insecurity, and inequality in the system, a lot of the work has to happen outside of food. So much of that is about income,” Martin said.

“If as a society we are going to put the onus on individual women and community food programs, then why are we set up so that they don’t have what they need to achieve this?”

As a potential solution, Martin points to a range of potential policy options, including a basic income, affordable housing, childcare and transportation.

“Overall, this is about the way we care for each other as a society. We need to elevate the importance of caring for each other and to do that we need to build democracy in our homes, communities and nation. Community food initiatives are playing a role in this by helping people eat, learn, belong and have a voice.”