Food insecurity is a simultaneously simple and complex problem. At its heart, despite many other contributing factors – such as geography, transportation, housing, and food literacy – hunger is overwhelmingly a symptom of poverty.

Yet poverty itself is not something that is easy to solve. On a macro level, poverty rates are affected by forces like economic inequality, the availability of secure employment, social assistance rates, access to affordable housing, and so on. As an individual, your likelihood to find yourself in poverty is influenced by a myriad of intersecting demographic and life circumstances, such as whether you live alone, if you are a single parent, or your mental health status.

We know that poverty generally, and food insecurity specifically, have enormously negative impacts on individuals. Adults who experience food insecurity are more likely to develop chronic conditions Link opens a new window, like diabetes and depression. Hungry children and adolescents are more likely to have behavioural issues Link opens a new window and experience difficulty with memory and learning. This spirals into huge costs for society Link opens a new window: an estimated $2.9 billion in health care costs, $550 million in costs to the criminal justice system, and $1.6 billion in intergenerational poverty annually, just in Ontario alone.

With an estimated 11.9% of Ontarians experiencing food insecurity Link opens a new window, it is clear that this is a serious and pressing public health issue that needs to be addressed. Yet our understanding of the problem is still quite limited.

Olivier de Schutter, United Nations Special Rappoteur on the right to food, wrote in his report regarding his mission to Canada Link opens a new window: “First, in order to effectively combat hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition, it is necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of who is hungry, food insecure and malnourished.”

To create solid, evidence-based policies to combat food insecurity, we need that comprehensive understanding, or else we will be spending money, creating programs, and targeting populations based on guesswork. In order to achieve that understanding, we need as much good information from as many sources as possible.

In 2004, Statistics Canada began tracking household food insecurity rates through the annual Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), which is the only government-mandated method of tracking food insecurity provincially. The survey includes the categories Link opens a new window of marginal (worrying about running out of food and/or limiting food selection because of a lack of money), moderate (reducing quality or quantity) and severe (skipping meals, reducing intake, or going for whole days without food) food insecurity.

Yet participation in this survey is optional, and not every province chooses to monitor this data every year. Ontario elected to not participate in the CCHS for 2015 and 2016 Link opens a new window, the first time the province has opted out since the survey began. This leaves big gaps in the data, which is especially concerning given the provincial government’s Basic Income Pilot Link opens a new window – a project that is intended to be an evidence-based experiment in which food insecurity rates are a key outcome.

As an organization, the long-term vision of the Ontario Association of Food Banks has always been a hunger-free Ontario. For the last twenty-five years, we have been helping food banks reduce hunger in the short-term by providing them with food and resources, so that more people in need have access to food.

We have also continued to work on long-term solutions to hunger, through supporting food bank programs that address the root causes of hunger, research into food bank use, and recommendations for change to the provincial government on policies that would impact food bank clients.

To continue improving our research and understanding of the complex issue of hunger, the OAFB rolled out Link2Feed in 2014, a client intake system that tracks, in real time, food bank use, trends and statistics across its membership. Link2Feed is an award-winning system, recently named one of the world’s top social impact organizations for customers on B Lab’s “Best for the World Link opens a new window” list. This innovative software was developed in Ontario in partnership with food banks and agencies of the Ontario food bank network.

Through Link2Feed, we can monitor up-to-the-minute shifts in network demands, which greatly improves our ability to provide more support to a community when an unexpected event occurs, such as a factory closure. We can then mobilize resources quickly and create important strategies to address ongoing food insecurity or sudden changes in demand.

Link2Feed helps us answer these questions and, more importantly, provides us with the information we need to grow and develop important programs for food banks and their clients, as well as provide support for strategic changes to public policy.

Our local food banks are also pushing the bounds of how they can use their Link2Feed data. For example, Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto is using the granular data available through Link2Feed to equitably distribute specialty items Link opens a new window, like diabetic supplies, across their network to their agencies with the highest proportion of diabetic clients.

In Ottawa, they are using their data in a new longitudinal study Link opens a new window on the relative benefits and impacts of food bank programming. Michael Maidment, Executive Director of the Ottawa Food Bank, says, “The data acquired from the Link2Feed system will play a critical role in the research project we are launching with the University of Ottawa and the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security in establishing a baseline for the qualitative research analysis. The goal of the project is to uncover the most effective way to meet the needs of the people we serve so we can achieve long term positive outcomes for our clients.”

Link2Feed’s “Big Hairy Audacious Goal Link opens a new window” is to “create the world’s first metric on hunger in developed nations.” They say, “by unifying food banks around the world through the only internationally standardized intake process and reporting system for food banks, we can start to understand hunger and develop the metrics to better conceptualize it.”

While food bank use and demographics do not paint the complete picture of the spectrum of food insecurity, as they are designed to be emergency food provisioners, they are still an important set of metrics to track.

Food banks are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for larger issues in our country, province and communities. The changes in overall use and demographic composition Link opens a new window of food bank clients can tell important stories, such as whether social assistance is meeting its recipients’ needs (with two-thirds of food bank clients reporting their main source of income as social assistance, it is not) or if seniors still have sufficient supports (we’ve seen a 22.8 percent increase in the number of seniors visiting food banks since 2008).

Now, with Link2Feed, we can ask even more specific questions, such as if there are more clients with dietary restrictions due to chronic illnesses, or if food bank use reduced dramatically in a community with a new employer.

The better we understand the shape of hunger in our communities, the better we will be able to formulate solutions to tackle it. Slowly but surely, we are moving towards our goal of a hunger-free Ontario.

To support the work of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, please visit Link opens a new window