Food Insecurity in Low Income Neighborhoods

We conducted a community based study on food insecurity facing residents living in two of our catchment areas (Taylor Massey neighborhood and Rockcliffe Smythe neighborhood). Our study produced important insights on the root causes of food insecurity, how people respond to food insecurity, and how these experiences affect their health and well-being. The study also documented service needs and recommendations for solutions.

Our Research Goals and Methods
Current evidence shows that women, racialized groups and immigrants face disproportionately higher levels of food insecurity. Key determinants/factors that are found to be closely associated with food insecurity include being un/underemployed, being low-income, being on social assistance, living in a rental unit (as opposed home owner), living in low-income neighborhood, and being in a single mother led household (Tarasuk et al, 2016; Health Canada, 2007). Front line service providers at Access Alliance had been noticing a sharp rise in clients who were coming to our programs hungry. In response to this, we conducted a community based study to understand root causes of food insecurity facing residents living in two of our catchment areas (Taylor Massey neighborhood and Rockcliffe Smythe neighborhood).

The key goal of this study was to investigate the experience of food insecurity among families residing in low-income neighborhoods in Toronto’s east and west ends. Specifically, we wanted to gain a better understanding of the root economic and social causes of food insecurity facing people in low-income neighborhoods. We also wanted to learn how   families respond and cope with food insecurity and how it impacts their health and well-being. Another key goal of the study was to document recommendations from low-income families about the kinds of interventions and solutions needed to overcome food insecurity.
We used a mixed-methods framework that combined focus group discussions and interviews with a brief questionnaire on food insecurity measures. We conducted seven focus groups and four one-on-one interviews with residents in these two neighborhoods (n=62), and one focus group with service providers.

Our Project Team Members
This study was led by three graduate students as part of their research practicum at Access Alliance: Aysha Butt, Brooke Campus, and Zahra Mamdani. They were supervised by Gisela Vanzaghi (Manager, AccessPoint on Jane, Access Alliance) and Dr Yogendra Shakya and supported by Tayyeba Darr (Research Coordinator, Access Alliance). Axelle Jancur (ED, Access Alliance), Serena (Manager, Mental Health and Wellness) and Jennifer Atkins (Registered Dietitian, Access Alliance) served as advisory for the study.

What we Found
Our study results indicate that vulnerable residents living in low-income neighborhoods in Toronto are facing acute and elevated levels of food insecurity. Almost half of the study participants (42%) reported that the food they bought just didn’t last and they didn’t have money to get more. One of out of six (17%) reported that they were hungry but didn’t eat because they couldn’t afford enough food. We found that people are going hungry or struggling to meet their food needs because they cannot afford to buy the food they need, and also because nutritious and/ or culturally specific foods were unaffordable or unable (including in food banks) in their neighborhoods. And the key reason for these affordability and accessibility barriers were rooted in deeper structural factors including poverty, unemployment/under-employment, insufficient social assistance, and high cost of living in cities like Toronto (i.e. high cost of housing, utility, phone/internet, transportation expenses).

Our study also documented that social factors such as language barriers, precarious immigration status, social isolation, lack of familiarity with food items available in grocery stores or foodbanks, and stigma associated with foodbank use also play a key role in creating or worsening food insecurity among low-income people who are immigrants and/or from racialized backgrounds. We found food insecurity is having damaging impacts on health including direct physiological health impacts (such as feeling weak, losing or gaining weight), mental health impacts (not being unable to concentrate, being constantly stressed, anxious and worried about feeding themselves and their families), as well as impacts on chronic health, specifically diabetes.

You can read our study findings and service/system level recommendations here:

Our Knowledge Translation Activities
We use study findings to develop/improve community food programs at Access Alliance (e.g. community garden program, food box program, emergency food cabinet program) and to sharpen our policy/system advocacy strategies. To learn more, visit Access Alliance’s Food Insecurity web page.

Stay tuned for our Critical Discussion Report, which will re-examine, revise, and reinforce the recommendations from the 2018 report within our post-COVID context. 

Our Funders
This study was funded through Access Alliance’s Health with Dignity program.

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