Feeding a sustainable future

A woman in a red shirt stands smiling between two other seated smiling women. There is a whiteboard in the background

“It’s not just about hunger. When we think of Sustainable Development Goal 2, I think we need to keep that in mind.” 

Tina Moffat
Associate Professor, Anthropology
Faculty of Social Sciences


“You buy poison if you don’t have the money.” A Canadian newcomer said this to me once and it stuck. She was referring to her inability to buy nutritious, chemical-free food for her family.

It’s a dramatic expression of how deeply food insecurity can affect people.

Food is a very powerful thing – it’s far more than just fuel for our bodies. Where we eat, what we eat and how it affects our health all matter, and these factors should inform policymaking on food issues.

As an anthropologist, I’m interested in the links between food insecurity, community, poverty, culture and health. My research looks for ways to support people who are struggling to consistently access healthy and culturally apporpriate food and coping with the indignity that comes with this struggle.

More: Tina Moffat’s work exemplifies McMaster’s commitment to advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When we think about Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger—we need to keep in mind that it’s about much more than hunger.

My interest in nutrition and food insecurity goes back to the late 1980s, when I landed a summer internship at FoodShare in Toronto while completing my undergraduate degree at U of T. At the time  Debbie Field, trailblazer in Canada’s food movement, was the director of FoodShare Toronto, and she ultimately turned FoodShare into the largest food security charity in North America.

The experience was pivotal and it’s where I found my passion and saw firsthand the association between food and community.

By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

Malnutrition in children isn’t just about food

In the 1990s, I was doing my doctoral research in Nepal. That’s when I first observed how acute food insecurity and hunger could be. I was studying the nutritional health and well-being of children under five among migrant families working in the carpet-making industry in Kathmandu.

These kids were experiencing chronic malnutrition and its many impacts, including gastrointestinal parasites and infectious diseases. And the interconnectedness of their nutrition, health and living conditions was so apparent.

The goal to end hunger highlights the reality that we have to pay special attention to the poor and people in vulnerable situations — like the children I met in Nepal. Poverty and a lack of clean water and sanitation are huge barriers to food and nutrition security.

During my time there, two children in the community I was working with died – not from starvation, but from pneumonia. Without proper nutrition, children’s immune systems are compromised and they’re more likely to die from diseases that would otherwise be manageable.

The obesity epidemic and school lunches

By the early 2000s, I was back in Canada, investigating nutrition in elementary school children, comparing schools in different Hamilton neighbourhoods and exploring the economic inequalities that influence nutrition issues, particularly obesity. There was growing concern about obesity in young people, and we were interested in how it might relate to income.

The Sustainable Development Goals tend to concentrate on low-income countries, but there’s a real need to consider what we can be doing here in Canada.

Our study found a higher prevalence of obesity in low-income neighbourhoods in Hamilton. The reasons behind this are multiple and complex, but it got me thinking about how schools can play a role in combatting obesity in marginalized communities.

School meal programs exist all over the world in low-, middle- and high-income countries. Yet Canada is one of the only G8 countries without an institutionalized school-feeding program in its public primary schools. When you look at countries like France and Japan – which I’ve explored in my research – it’s clear that school meal programs successfully support children’s nutritional and food security and provide valuable education and socialization in healthy eating.

There’s no excuse here in Canada. Children need to be educated about food and making good choices when it comes to nutrition, especially when they’re not getting that education at home.

A national school meal program would help bring Canada closer to SDG 2.

Nutrition starts before birth

Another facet of my research reaches back even further in children’s life to look at their mothers’ nutrition in pregnancy and its effects on their future health.

Led by Dr. Deborah Sloboda, the Mothers2Babies Study has involved surveying pregnant women across Hamilton to gauge their understanding of this relationship, and determine what community-based resources would be helpful to them.

So far, our results confirm that women in Hamilton’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods, especially those who are racialized or newcomers to Canada, face big challenges when it comes to their ability to prioritize nutritious food. They just can’t afford to.

The findings also show that women with better understanding of the long-term effects of pregnancy health on their children’s health tend to eat better during pregnancy – despite these challenges. It points to a need for more and better nutrition education resourcess. 

The culture of food in New Canadians

We’re also seeing gaps in support for immigrants and refugees trying to adapt to a new food system in Canada. Interviews with newcomers at the Hamilton Community Food Centre have uncovered many obstacles to buying and eating nutritious and culturally satisfying food, including the lack of fresh unprocessed food at food banks, and troubles identifying and using untried foods.

New Canadians can experience a sort of food culture shock, something policymakers don’t always recognize when they address the high incidence of food insecurity in this group.

My research on food insecurity among immigrants and refugees living in Hamilton has highlighted the fact that food is at the heart of culture. When familiar ways of cooking and eating are disrupted, life becomes even harder for newcomers.

To bridge this gap, community food centres go beyond the charity-based food bank model by providing cooking classes, instruction on grocery shopping in Canada, and opportunities for newcomers to gather and eat. Food centres don’t just ease the transition to our food system and help immigrants access healthy, affordable food – they address the problem of social isolation by using food as a vehicle to bring people together.

Serving up dignity

Working with the Hamilton Community Food Centre, a program of Neighbour 2 Neighbour developed in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada and the City of Hamilton, I’ve seen how the food centre model effectively tackles some of the broader difficulties that can stem from food insecurity in any population.

These are hubs where people can build community networks, gain access to subsidized food, and even join advocacy efforts. Most important, perhaps, anyone can come in and get a high-quality meal in a dignified setting that’s more like a restaurant than a soup kitchen. It’s a place to celebrate food. And it’s not ghettoized in the same way that food banks are.

Many centres also offer community gardening and after-school activities. Most recently, I’ve been evaluating programs for youth at the Hamilton centre, such as Cookin’ Up Justice, which gives teens an opportunity to learn about cooking healthy, delicious meals while discussing food justice issues with their peers.

My hope is that we’ll see funding for more of these programs for young people, because they have such a positive impact not just on the participants, but on their whole families.

Watch the Neighbour to Neighbour video

Watch the photovoice project

The need for a global framework

The development goals provide a global framework, and they give us something to shoot for. I think that’s important.

Like most people working in field of food and nutrition, I was happy when the Canadian government announced the country’s first-ever national food policy in 2019. Its vision is for all people in Canada to access an adequate amount of safe, nutritious and culturally diverse food.

The Food Policy will help Canada meet its commitments under the development goals: to end hunger, promote good health, reduce food waste, and encourage a sustainable food system.

Sometimes it’s hard to see how Canada fits when it comes to these goals, compared to the developing world and low-income countries. That’s why it’s so important for Canadian nutrition researchers to have their eye on policy and figure out how their research can contribute. Continuing to push for a national school meal program based on the evidence of its positive outcomes, for example, is one important way we can move Canada closer to the goals.

I’m consistently amazed by how resilient people can be in the face of food insecurity, by finding creative ways to access nutritious food for their families. On the flip side, I’m also amazed by the dedication of those who work on the frontlines of food insecurity, in food banks and food centres.

Zero poverty is a lofty goal. Will it be achieved by 2030? I don’t know, but I’m in it for the long game. And there’s lots of reason for hope.

Tina Moffat’s upcoming book, Small Bites: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Food and Nutrition, will launch this year with UBC Press. Her work exemplifies McMaster’s commitment to advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Learn more about the best ways to align research with the UN’s SDGs.

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