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Sylvain CharleboisIn case you didn’t know, it’s Hunger Awareness Week. Across the country, food banks, community groups and many NGOs are reminding us how lucky most of us are to be food secure.

Regardless of how wealthy a nation is, food insecurity can be found anywhere. And yes, even in Canada. Each week over 200,000 Canadians visit food banks, including more than 70,000 children. These numbers are downright disturbing, considering Canada’s social safety net is more robust than many other industrialized countries. As we try to figure out how to better the lives of the less fortunate, some fine-tuning in our approach to the whole notion of hunger may be required.

First off, we should be clear about one thing. Food bank traffic is undoubtedly an effective indicator of domestic food insecurity. Food banks have argued for years that they represented a short-term solution. Yet, from a food security point of view, food banks look out for those who are most vulnerable, and they are increasingly getting better at it. They have proven to be one of the most innovative ways to foster altruist motives from volunteers and businesses to support fellow citizens in need. Many people have given hours to help sort and serve food bank customers, while hundreds of food companies transact with food banks every day. The stewardship that food banks have demonstrated over the years has built a strong business case for any organization looking to repurpose unsold food. The impact is immediate, meaningful and, most importantly, human. For businesses, giving to the food bank network only makes socio-economic sense.

Despite these efforts, Canada’s performance in addressing food insecurity has been poor, to say the least. Back in 1998, more than 17 years ago, Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security was introduced as our response to a global call to reduce by half the number of undernourished people by no later than the year 2015.

But while, since that time, the prevalence of undernourishment globally has fallen from 18.7 percent to 11.3 percent, and from 23.4 percent to 13.5 percent for developing economies, food insecurity rates in Canada have remained relatively stable at around 8 percent or so. Worse, food insecurity in northern regions like Nunavut can easily exceed 35 percent. These numbers clearly warrant a call for a different approach.

This year, for “hunger” awareness week, Food Banks Canada and its affiliates opened their doors in order to engage and educate all Canadians. Food banks need to be demystified and should become more transparent so we can appreciate the impressive work they do. Food banks are filled with caring, compassionate individuals who want to help, every single day. Nonetheless, to get the attention it deserves, the overarching message of “hunger” from food banks may need to be revisited, since it may not resonate with many Canadians.

Hunger, arguably, has become a politically charged term in recent years, frequently used by social activists in their attempts to emotionally galvanize support for the cause. They can hardly be blamed for doing so, but using it constantly may have anaesthetized those looking for a reason to engage.

In addition, hunger can be considered in relative terms. Acute hunger or starvation is inflicted by natural disasters, diseases and war. It is the worse form of hunger, period. Most Canadians implicitly associate images of refugees and war-torn zones to hunger. Individuals and families who visit food banks suffer from daily or chronic undernourishment, which is a much less visible form of hunger.

To be effective, food banks need to decouple both realities in their communication campaigns. Food security is much more strategic and has recognized measurements to assess performance. This is exactly what we need, particularly for food bank operations. Proper analytics can help food banks anticipate demand. “Hunger,” from a conceptual point of view, can never really be explained since it is an inherently imprecise construct.

Food security is about individuals having access to adequate, safe and nutritious food, both in quantity and quality, to meet their daily dietary requirements for a healthy and productive life. It can be easily compromised by poverty, mental health issues, lack of education and more. Economic cycles also affect people’s lives, and changes in policies could help.

In the meantime, the best responsive mechanism we have to address negative market externalities is unquestionably food banks. To build a relationship beyond their current constituents, the language used by food banks should change.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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