Women (Re)Defining Food (In)Security

Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, Dr. Mary Anne Martin, and Ph.D candidate Melanie Goodchild participate in the "Women (Re)defining Food (In)security" panel on March 7, 2019. Photo by Sogyal Samdup.

On the eve of International Women’s Day, the Nourish project hosted Women (Re)Defining Food (In)Security, an informative discussion on the relationship between gender and food insecurity. The speakers were Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, Dr. Mary Anne Martin, a feminist food researcher and advocate, and Ph.D candidate Melanie Goodchild, who is Anishinaabe and a senior advisor of social change initiatives such as Food Systems Lab and “Nourish: The Future of Food in Healthcare,” with J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. The discussion was moderated by Carolyn Doris of Peterborough Public Health.

The first to speak was Dr. Tarasuk. She spoke about socio-demographic analyses of household food insecurity. 16% of households in Peterborough were reported to be food insecure, and one in two single-mother families were food insecure. It was clear from the data provided that women are disproportionately affected by food insecurity in Canada.

Dr. Tarasuk spoke about how some key factors that significantly increase the likelihood of food insecurity are having children and having mental health issues. It was also found that the average healthcare cost was almost triple for severely food insecure households than for food secure households. Dr. Tarasuk also explained the limited impact of the Ontario Child Benefit initiative, showing that most food-insecure households were ineligible for OCB, and that while there was a drop in prevalence of food insecurity for households receiving OCB, this drop was modest and short-lived.

Next to present was Dr. Mary Anne Martin who spoke about the household practices of Peterborough mothers who lived on meagre incomes, how food insecurity affected them, and the impact of Community Food Initiatives. Dr. Martin talked about the division of food labour, stating that, at the end of the day, it is still the women who are doing the vast majority of food work. She shared stories of the food-insecure mothers she had met who did everything they could to put food on their table, and how they coped with food insecurity. Dr. Martin touched on how some felt uncomfortable about appearing needy. This fear of judgement caused some women to refrain from asking for the help that they needed.

The hardships of these women are encapsulated by Hannah, a 31-year-old single mother who shared her story with Dr. Martin. Hannah said, “If [my girlfriend] has a worse day than I have or a worse week than I’m having or whatever, sometimes it’s just easier to get together and then we share everything. Share the buying of the food, share the cooking, share the cleaning up and the kids are fed and we all have leftovers…We’re happy.” One can only imagine how much harder life is for women who, unlike Hannah, have no one to share this struggle with.

Community Food Initiatives are very important for food-insecure households, since they provide access to food, help develop one’s food-related skills and knowledge, and ultimately form a sense of collectiveness and universality.

The last to speak was Melanie Goodchild. She spoke about the importance of climate change and food insecurity, and specifically how it affects Indigenous people. She shared her experience of being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, and how she responded by changing to a plant-based diet with the exception of wild game. She also shared the subsequent research and projects she undertook, including those regarding the connection between food and oneself. She explained the idea of Two-Eyed Seeing, which means to study or to see things using Western knowledge, and then to study or see things using one’s ancestral knowledge.

Goodchild discussed the matter of poor food in various hospitals and the Nourish Project’s program of which she was a part. This program aimed to bring culturally significant and nourishing food to patients in hospitals. A heart-warming anecdote she shared was that of an Inuit female elder who was admitted to a hospital in Ottawa. The elder wanted traditional Inuit food, which is normally very difficult to provide. When a worker managed to provide the elder with some seal meat, she burst into tears because “she saw the food of her people, of the childhood of her land.”