Busting myths about food insecurity: Community gardens, subsidized housing not answers

New research busts a big myth about people who can’t afford to buy the healthy food they need: they can cook just fine, thank you — they just don’t have enough money to, says Valerie Tarasuk, an expert in food insecurity and a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Tarasuk was the keynote speaker Monday evening at a panel discussion about food insecurity on P.E.I. called “A healthy ‘food Island’ for all? Food insecurity and healthy public policy: a call to action.”

There are often programs put in place to teach people who are food insecure how to shop and cook, “thinking that if they were just more skilled, they would be able to better function on a low income,” said Tarasuk, who looked at self-reported food skills and gardening behaviours of people who were food insecure.

“What our findings suggest is that they’re already very skilled,” she said — making detailed grocery lists and shopping within a budget.

Looked at gardening

“Often, people have started up community gardens or gardening projects, thinking if people could just grow their own food then it would alleviate some of their need to purchase food and it would help them to manage,” she said.

But Tarasuk found people who garden were not less likely to be food insecure.

Valerie Tarasuk

Principal investigator Valerie Tarasuk says the numbers continue to be too high with more than one in five children in P.E.I. and the other Maritime provinces not getting healthy food. (CBC)

“I know, again, it seems counter-intuitive — you think well if you’re growing your own food you don’t need to buy it, you should have more food,” she said. But small urban gardens don’t produce enough, she said, and fill needs mostly temporarily because they are seasonal.

Veggies in the city

There are several opportunities for Charlottetown residents to garden for free or little cost, including planters in city parks last summer dedicated to vegetable gardening rather than flowers. And through its micro-grant program the city has also supported many projects related to food skills, including cooking and preserving.

Ramona Doyle, the sustainability officer with the City of Charlottetown, said she’s eager to read more about Tarasuk’s findings.

“We’re really trying — how can we improve our programming? What are the missing pieces for people to have access to food, to be eating more healthy, to be eating more locally?”

“I think in any of these issues we have to look at a broad spectrum of solutions,” said Doyle. The city is currently carrying out a project to increase food security through gardening, and are asking residents to fill out a survey here.

Affordable housing

Another myth Tarasuk said she’s busting: subsidizing housing costs does not mean people are less likely to be food insecure.


‘We have to look at a broad spectrum of solutions,’ says Ramona Doyle, sustainability officer with the City of Charlottetown. (CBC)

While housing is the single biggest expenditure of someone who is low-income, Tarasuk said, “what really matters is how much income they’ve got.”

She looked at people living in subsidized housing — with no more than 30 per cent of their income going toward their rent — and found more than half of those people could not afford healthy food.

The single biggest predictor of food insecurity is income, she concludes — and housing policy that supports food insecurity must be policy based on adequate incomes.

Through a food-security lens

Tarasuk has met with provincial officials who are reviewing P.E.I.’s poverty reduction strategy, and would like to see the government target food insecurity as part of that strategy.

She urged government to evaluate its policies, such as affordable housing, against food insecurity — leaving Islanders enough money in their pockets to eat properly.

She pointed to the full room at the Wanda Wyatt lecture theatre at UPEI Monday evening as evidence that many Islanders care about food the issue and solving it.