HEAL helps Huron County understand food needs

May 01, 2018

Story by Debora Van Brenk

Huron County is about as agricultural as it’s possible to be in Ontario. Its rural roads are lined with cornfields and livestock barns; its towns, dotted with equipment dealerships and co-op stores. Any residents who don’t work the land are almost certainly related to someone who does.

Yet in the midst of that rich farmland, hunger and poverty still sprout like thistles among soybeans.

More than 17 per cent of Huron households have incomes of less than $30,000 per year. The county has more than a dozen aid agencies and food banks, served in part by the Huron County Food Bank Distribution Centre.

Mary Ellen Zielman didn’t imagine the extent of the issue when she started working as the centre’s executive director in 2009. “I had no idea when the distribution centre began that there was the need in the area that there is. And for every family that goes (to a food bank), there are six that don’t, but should.”

Recently, the non-profit centre, which supplies food banks and aid agencies in the county, received a Trillium Grant to examine whether there were unmet food needs in Huron and, if so, how best they those gaps could be filled.

They turned to a team led by Geography professor Jason Gilliland of the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEAL) at Western University to help interpret the degree of food insecurity in Huron, and its reasons. What the team found was food data they believe can also be translated to other rural areas of Ontario.

“There is a common misconception that most people in Ontario’s rural communities are employed in agriculture, so they shouldn’t suffer from a lack of nutritious food,” Gilliland said. “While it is true that many Huron County households are engaged in agricultural activities, there really are very few households that are meeting all their dietary needs by growing their own vegetables and/or raising their own livestock.”

HEAL research keys in on the complex factors that help create healthy and vibrant communities.

In Huron, focus-group discussions centred on the “five As” of food security – availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability and agency – said team member and Geology MSc student Angela Piaskoski.

“We learned through these groups that being able to access a food bank only once a month is not enough. Other common themes that were uncovered were the importance to the respondents of receiving fresh, nutritious food, of knowing where food is coming from and being able to choose appropriate food for their household,” she said.

Zielman said the distribution centre receives food and financial support from farmers and industries – including greenhouse operators who donate fresh vegetables – and from community members. The centre acts as a warehouse, supply centre and advocacy group with the Huron County Health Unit on behalf of area food banks and aid agencies.

But the HEAL study showed there are holes in the support network, including access problems caused by distance and lack of transportation.

Nor is the problem just one of geographic access: despite donors’ generosity, food selection often omits lactose-free, gluten-free or sugar-free products for people with health issues, and lacks food many newcomers rely on as staples of their diet.

“Our mapping revealed that food bank users are coming from throughout the county; however, there are areas with high proportions of households with potential food insecurity who are not accessing food banks,” said Andrew Clark, project co-ordinator for HEAL. “The biggest gap we found is simply that people are not meeting their food needs through monthly visits to food banks.”

For Zielman, the analysis confirmed her perception that amounts provided to food-bank users were insufficient to meet their needs. “I’ve always said it’s supposed to be a seven-day supply ¬– but what about the rest of the month?”

Poverty, she said, is forcing some people to make untenable choices: “People eating one meal a day to make their groceries go further … (People) faced with (either) having a medical test that’s not covered by OHIP or having enough food for the month.”

The scan has led the Huron County Food Bank Distribution Centre to more strategic thinking about how to fill gaps and reduce hunger.

Next steps include, potentially, launching a mobile food bank that could travel to those who need it most.
HEAL’s work provided the centre with a wealth of local information and analysis, Zielman said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

Gilliland said HEAL has a track record of mapping food environments, including access to healthy food, but hadn’t – before now – combined this work with surveys of food bank users.

“This work could be repeated in other counties, and the research and recommendations are translate-able to other rural areas across Ontario,” he said.

These collaborations benefit the community groups, add to the lab’s funding sources and offer practical and meaningful research experience for Western students conducting the work, Gilliland said.

Geography professor Jason Gilliland of the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEAL) at Western to help interpret the degree of food insecurity in Huron, and its reasons. What the team found was food data they believe can also be translated to other rural areas of Ontario.

  • Interviews with people from 194 households who used food banks, food bank and aid agency co-ordinators, as well as focus groups in seven communities;
  • 80 per cent of food bank users ate less than they should because they didn’t have enough money to buy food;
  • 42 per cent lost weight because they didn’t have enough money for food;
  • Many adults ate once a day or missed meals so that their children would have more to eat;
  • Monthly visits to food banks were insufficient to meet clients’ needs; and,
  • People said they valued being treated with dignity and respect, and being able to make their own food choices, at food banks.