Fresh produce, food banks, food security – exploring the links for healthy people and healthy communities

by Lynette Hornung

env_foodsecurityHaving nurtured a burgeoning passion for growing, preparing and sharing food in recent years, (while also feeling the tension between living on a meagre income but benefitting from a position of privilege based on my education and skin colour), colleagues, friends and family should be unsurprised that my graduate studies prompted me to question the intersection of local food production, nutritional health, and food insecurity.

Canada has recognized access to food as a right of all people. But for many, the experience of turning to food banks makes it obvious that  to have access to sufficient, nutritious, culturally and personally acceptable food is a privilege, not an enforceable right.  Likewise, access to a food system that is economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable is particularly inequitable; this “alternative” (or “good”) food movement is also problematic because it has largely been shaped by, and thus reflects the priorities of, the privileged.

Those relying on the charitable, supply-based food bank system have described it as degrading and humiliating; such insult may be compounded by going home with a grocery parcel seen as unhealthy, processed, possibly unsafe, and not of one’s own choosing.  This is not the case with all food bank programs, but also, our food system’s failure does not end with food assistance.

Diet and nutrition-related health problems come with a price tag in the billions, in addition to costs in suffering and quality of life. Further, food production that is more localized and diversified – than that providing most of our food – is challenged by the loss of farmland ownership by, and increasing indebtedness of, small Canadian farms.

My Master’s thesis asked how the use of fresh, local produce in Hamilton, Ontario’s food banks begins to address such interconnected problems. Although this research stems from a seemingly pessimistic and embittered view of our food system, the results tell a hopeful story and are a call to action. By combining a nutritional analysis with interviews, my study documented many benefits to using fresh, local produce in Hamilton’s food banks along with some factors that facilitate the process, from seed to plate, or that are opportunities for change.

I suggest that tackling our food system’s failures requires both making the food bank system better (such as by supporting the inclusion of fresh, local produce) and developing a just, sustainable food system that doesn’t depend on food banks. Drawing together participants’ diverse visions for the future of Hamilton’s food system, I propose community food centres as a valuable way forward in Hamilton.

Wrapping up this project, I am drawn to related matters: the breadth of problems arising when food banks are instituted as a response to food insecurity; the commodification of our basic needs in a capitalist, neoliberal climate; and the exigency of radical change to developing a just, sustainable food system. While one study cannot address everything, I believe my research provides evidence for one way to move our food system in a better direction, a way that I think represents a compromise between the idealism of what a “good food” system should entail and the realism of working with the food system that we are already entrenched and invested in.

Lynette HornungLynnette Hornung recently completed a M.A. in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University. Moving to Ontario from Alberta for graduate school, Lynnette was looking for the opportunity to both study food systems and become part of a passionate community engaged in reclaiming its food sovereignty: she has found this in Hamilton. Since completion of the Master’s program, Lynnette is developing skills in growing, processing and preparing food in Hamilton as well as working on ways to facilitate others’ (sometimes unbeknownst to them) interest in learning about and engaging with their food system.

Contact: hornulr(at)

Report: Hornung_2011_CultivatingChange