Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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A Food Policy for Canada Doesn’t Offer Much to Chew On

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You may have heard that Canada released a food policy last week. Which is great but it seems to be light on specifics and really just a bunch of food-related budget items grouped together and called a policy.

There were a few things in the policy that I was pleased to see: the government’s “intention” to work with the provinces and territories to develop a national school food program. This is long overdue and much needed. A universal  school food program would ensure that children had the nutrition that they need to learn and grow (at least during the school day) and would help alleviate some of the burden on parents who may not have sufficient income or resources to ensure their children have healthy breakfasts and lunches. Unfortunately, I don’t see any money marked for this item and as we head into an election, forgive me if I sound cynical in my “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude. I’m also concerned about who will be involved in developing such a program as we don’t want to fall into the trap of promoting brands or providing unappealing, less than nutritious meals – like we often hear about from our neighbours in the States.

I was happy to see money going toward promoting locally grown and produced foods as well as toward preventing food fraud. However, despite the budget lines devoted to these items sounding huge to me as a dietitian who works with a budget that’s a fraction of these amounts, in the big picture of the government, it’s not very much money at all. They’ve marked $25 million for a buy local produce campaign and $24.4 million to combat food fraud. Contrast this with the $12 million they gave to Loblaw to retrofit their fridges a few months ago.

The part that I’m most disappointed by is the first item mentioned in the policy introduction and that’s their so-called efforts to reduce food insecurity. The example they give is of providing a grant to a food bank so that they can buy more freezers. Are. You. Kidding. Me. Food insecurity is something that I would have loved to have seen this policy address more fulsomely. Unfortunately, they really missed the mark on this important issue. Yes, in some communities and some circumstances, access to sufficient nutritious food is absolutely an issue. However, in the vast majority of cases of Canadians who are experiencing food insecurity the root cause is insufficient income. There are people in every community across the country who cannot afford enough nutritious food for themselves and their families. Continuing to support the food charity model (i.e. food banks) is not the answer. Give the people of Canada a basic income. Empower people to be able to afford to make their own food decisions. Food banks provide an essential emergency service but they were never intended to be permanent solutions to hunger and poverty. Providing more money for food banks only further entrenches them in our food system and society and allows the government to get off easy without making any meaningful effort to end food insecurity.


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Weight Watchers, SNAP, Ultra-processed food, and Front-of package labels: a few short rants

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I have a few things I want to rant about that aren’t really sufficient for full blog posts on their own so I thought I’d do a few mini-posts today.

Weight Watchers

As you’ve probably heard, Weight Watchers announced that they’ll offer free services for teens a few weeks ago. The backlash in the RD community was pretty powerful (check out #wakeupweightwatchers on Twitter). Despite that, I did see a few RDs defending the organization with the argument that overweight and obesity is a health concern for teens and that Weight Watchers has been proven to be effective. While obesity can certainly be a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases, I still don’t think that Weight Watchers is appropriate for teens. While it has been shown to be effective for some adults, there is no evidence to support its efficacy or safety for teens and weight is not the only measure of health (and is not in any manner a measure of worth). I don’t think that it teaches a healthy relationship with food to be considering it in terms of points and weight and I worry that the impact of enrolling a teen in Weight Watchers may be more harmful psychologically and physiologically than beneficial.

SNAP

Apparently the GOP wants to replace some food stamps with a “Harvest Box” that will force “nutritious” foods on recipients. There are soooo many things wrong with this idea. 1. it does not increase food security as providing pre-selected foods to those in need is not allowing them to access food with dignity; 2. dietary needs and preferences vary widely. Will the foods in these boxes be appropriate for men and women and children of all ages and walks of life? Will there be sufficient calories for all ages and lifestyles? What about people who need to consume special diets due to certain conditions (e.g. celiac disease), allergies or intolerances? What about various cultural preferences, religious preferences, or personal preferences? People always complain about “liberals” creating a nanny state but this, this is a true nanny state telling people they are not capable of making their own food choices; 3. This is supposed to save the government money. But when you will now have to source food, package it, and distribute it, as opposed to reloading a debit card I’m really not sure how that will result in any cost savings; 4. What kind of quality will the food be if the point is to save money? I suspect it will not end-up being an improvement over choices people make on their own and there will likely be more food waste due to delivery of unsuitable foods; 5. While assuming the government knows best regarding what people living on limited incomes need the government is perhaps forgetting that people relying on assistance may not have access to all of the kitchen equipment and tools necessary to cook foods provided in these boxes. Not everyone has a full kitchen, power, gas, pots pans, knives, can openers, etc. Time is also often a barrier for people on limited incomes making foods that require lengthy preparation impractical; 6. Has the government consulted with those using SNAP if they would like to receive boxes of preselected food or how they think the system could be improved? A significant issue with many government programs (and many things in general) is that the end user is not consulted making for ineffective and poorly designed services.

Ultra-processed Food

Everyone’s all mad that the classification system for what makes a food ultra-processed isn’t perfect. Yet, we can’t call food “junk food” anymore because that’s offensive even though I don’t think anyone really takes offence to the term and everyone knows what it means. We need some sort of way to categorize food to be able to have meaningful research and discussion. We also need to realise that nothing is perfect and maybe just settle the fuck down and say, “yes, this method has flaws but it’s better than nothing and we will acknowledge that it’s not perfect and deal with it until we have a better way to do things”. Or should we just say eff-it, let the people eat snack cakes?

New Front-of-Package Labels in Canada

Health Canada is currently in the second phase of FOP consultation and you should go have your say. It will only take a few minutes. While they caved to industry and lost the stop sign option, there’s still an opportunity to add your thoughts at the end so, if you want, you can tell them they should make the image more powerful.


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Is healthy food cheaper? Is that even the question?

 

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Continuing on with my ranting discussion about food security, I can’t help but comment on a study out of England that was getting huge media attention over the past couple of weeks. The study showed that “pound for pound” it was less expensive to eat healthy foods than to eat ultra-processed foods. The majority of the news stories concluded that poor people could be eating healthfully they just prefer to pay more for “taste and convenience”, according to one of the study’s authors. To which I say, check your privilege.

As I’ve said before, food insecurity is not a matter of simple math. While there are certainly myriad factors that contribute to our decisions about what to eat, lack of income is the root cause of food insecurity. Dismissing money as a concern on the basis of this study is wishful thinking more than anything. It’s also an insult to people who are struggling to make ends meet and feed themselves and their families.

Because some researchers went to the store and found that a pound of carrots is cheaper than a pound of french fries, the logical conclusion is that everyone should be able to afford to eat nutritious meals prepared from minimally processed ingredients? That seems like quite the leap to me. There’s no accounting for calories or ease of preparation in this comparison. Sure, a pound of vegetables may be less expensive than a pound of frozen ready-meals but I think that most people would agree that carrots do not make a balanced meal on their own. To make a nutritionally balanced meal, you’d need to round those carrots out with some dark green leafy veg, some protein like meat, fish, beans, or tofu (the authors acknowledge that meat and fish are the exception to their affordability rule), and a grain such as rice, quinoa, or whole grain bread. As most of these items need to be purchased in quantities greater than those needed for a single meal, it can quickly become more expensive to buy ingredients for a home cooked meal than it is to buy something already, or nearly, prepared. Yes, pound for pound, a bag of rice will be less expensive than frozen dinners but a bag of rice doesn’t make for much of a meal.

Stop trying to use your research to “prove” that poor people are choosing to feed their children junk. Take a good hard look at your own privilege and ask yourself how you can make this a more equitable society in which we try to help those who are struggling rather than shaming and blaming them.

 


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No, the USPS is not going to end food insecurity

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I know that I, and many others, have said it before (and I’m sure we’ll all say it again) but as long as there are articles like this coming out, it needs to be said that food charity is not the solution to food insecurity.

I’m certain that the students who came up with the idea of the United States Postal Service delivering food that would otherwise be thrown out to food banks and meal programs across the country was well-meaning. This may also help to reduce food waste, but it won’t decrease rates of food insecurity.

For those who haven’t read any of my ranting on food insecurity before, and who aren’t familiar with the subject, food insecurity is “the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints”. Food insecurity can mean not having enough food to eat, not knowing if you’ll be able to afford to eat tomorrow, not having access to safe nutritious food. It’s not a constant state. A person may be food insecure at certain times of month, certain times of the week, certain points of the year, or for periods throughout their lifetime. An important part of the definition to note is the “financial constraints“. Food insecurity is caused by inadequate income and no amount of donated food is going to solve that.

We may feel good about donating food or money to help others who are in need. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we need to stop kidding ourselves into believing that we’re fixing poverty and food insecurity through charity. The real solution to these problems is systemic change. It’s things like a basic income, living wages, increased social benefits, decreased precarious employment.

Trying to solve the problem of food waste is admirable but let’s not conflate the issue of food waste with food security.


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So, Maple Leaf is going to promote food security. Bologna for all?

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My first thought when I saw that Maple Leaf was launching a new food security centre was: “do we really need another food security organization in Canada?” As much as I love that this issue is gaining traction and increased attention, there are already a number of organizations in Canada working to promote food security (on a national level: PROOF an excellent research centre in Toronto, and Food Secure Canada). Not to mention all of the organizations that are working to fight poverty, which is the root cause of food insecurity.

As I read the article, I was impressed by the academic names attached. Although, I do find it rather telling that of the seven board members, four of them are Maple Leaf employees. My inner (okay not so inner) cynic can’t help but wonder if this is more of a public relations exercise for Maple Leaf than a true effort to increase food security of Canadians. Indeed, by the current projects they plan to support, I don’t anticipate that they’ll reach their goal of reducing food insecurity in Canada by 50% by 2030.

The projects they plan to support through their innovation fund are: an urban farm, community food hubs through a provincial food bank, and FoodShare. All of which are fantastic initiatives which will bolster food literacy in participants, but will likely have little impact on food security rates in Canada.

Dare I suggest that Maple Leaf might better tackle food security issues by addressing internal employment practices. Their lowest paid employees are making minimum wage and it sounds as though many struggle to attain a healthy work-life balance. Both of these issues are important factors in promoting food security. Meanwhile, the CEO of the company made the list of the top 100 highest paid CEOs in Canada last year; pulling in a cool $5,239,735. This sort of inequity does not lend itself to promotion of food security. Perhaps Maple Leaf should work on getting their own ducks in a row, and ensure that their own employees are all food secure, before bragging that they’ll be spending the equivalent of less than twice their CEO’s salary on a new food security centre over five years. Additionally, rather than creating a new food security centre, they could donate the money to organizations like PROOF, Living Wage Canada, Food Secure Canada, and other organizations working to fight poverty across the country.

If we truly want to ensure Canadians are food secure we need to stop thinking about it as a food charity issue and start thinking about it as an income and equity issue. Food drives and food bank donations may make us feel good about ourselves and help to put a little bit of food in the mouths of hungry people but they do nothing to promote food security. If anything, these programs allow government off the hook as they can pretend that communities are doing their work for them by providing for those in need. As individuals we can make sure our elected officials are aware that we support a basic income guarantee and living wages. The media can help to get this message out there. Employers can help to ensure food security for their employees by providing job security, adequate wages, work-life balance, and benefits packages. The government(s) can create policies that will see a basic income guarantee and living wage put in place across Canada.