Women and food insecurity: why women should lead food policy

by Jenna Drabble

foodjusticeIn 2001, 9.2% of Canadian households were food insecure, most of which depended on social assistance as the primary source of income. In Manitoba women are more likely to live in poverty than men and therefore face the highest risk of food insecurity.

Aboriginal women with children living off reserve are among one of the most vulnerable groups, with one in two reporting food insecurity, revealing the gendered as well as racialized nature of food insecurity in our society.

It is not uncommon for single mothers to compromise their own nutritional needs to satisfy those of their children. Through a food costing survey in two grocery stores in the city, I found that the minimum cost of monthly groceries to meet basic nutritional needs for a woman aged 25-49 is about $200.00. For a women with two young children, it is about $600.00/month. A single mother with two young children can receive $1,781.00 per month from social assistance, and must use this money to cover the rent, food, clothing and other household expenses. Even with modest living expenses, it would be easy cut into a single mother’s food budget under social assistance, and her nutrition is often sacrificed first.

Food banks can also be detrimental to women’s health. Manitoba is the number one province for food bank use and 59.3% of users are women.  Food banks often provide less nutritious foods because they have a longer shelf life and are easier to store. In addition to inhibiting an individual’s ability to maintain a balanced diet, the stigma that is attached to using food banks can be detrimental to people’s mental and emotional health.

Another dimension of food insecurity is the scarcity of quality food retailers in low-income, inner city neighbourhoods. Grocery stores that stock affordable nutritious food tend to locate near more affluent suburban communities creating a ‘food desert’ in the inner-city. For many people on a low income, or those with mobility issues, getting to another neighbourhood to buy groceries is not an option. Food deserts likely have some influence on the fact that the population in the core area of Winnipeg has some of the worst health outcomes in the city.

There is a relationship between food insecurity and poor health, and this has a disproportionate effect on women. However, the lifestyle based policy approaches intended to address these issues are simply not effective and overlook important investments that could be made to improve women’s health. Investing in health fosters the economic and social well being of communities. More equitable societies are healthier societies, and we need only look at the population health status of countries like Sweden (where reducing social exclusion and inequity is a government priority) to see the evidence for this.

There is no single solution to deal with the problem of food insecurity, as we know it is caused by both our social and built environments, as well as a food system that has made processed, nutrition-poor food more affordable than traditional, fresh, nutrient-rich food.

Family and children playing, graphicWomen are usually household food providers, yet they are less likely to be involved in discussions around food policy. Women need to be included in the conversation, particularly those who are most marginalized. Their opinions and experiences can inform food policy to make it equitable and inclusive of those most at risk of food insecurity. We need to prioritize community food security, not emergency food provision. Grocery stores should be located in neighbourhoods according to density, socioeconomic demographics and current food access. We must support community initiatives that provide opportunities for skill building related to gardening, cooking and nutrition, and lobby for policies that support urban food production.

To quote the People’s Food Policy Project: “People should not have to compromise their needs, agency, or sense of self in order to access food”.  Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that food is a right, not a privilege. Food insecurity compromises the health and well being of our communities. We can change this. Women, as food providers, can lead this change and need to be at the forefront of food policy decision-making.


Jenna DrabbleJenna Drabble lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba and has a BA in International Development Studies from the University of Winnipeg. Her passion for growing food and the desire to understand and support local, sustainable food systems has brought her to the University of Manitoba, where she is completing Pre Masters program in Environment and Geography. She plans to begin her masters research in the fall, in the field of food justice and environmental health.