Food Security & COVID-19 in Saskatchewan: An interview with Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer

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Dr. Engler-Stringer discusses the impacts of COVID-19 to food security in Saskatchewan, including who is most affected, inspiring community responses and the work that must be done to move from responding to immediate needs to food system transformation. Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

You can:

  • watch the full video conversation,
  • read the shortened interview transcript or,
  • view the key insights from the conversation. 

Key Insights from the Interview

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 How to use this resource:

  • Better understand the local impacts and solutions  to community food security in Saskatchewan during COVID-19
  • Advocate for systems transformation and key policy solutions for food security, including Universal Basic Income and a national school lunch program.
  • Facilitate discussion about the inequities of those experiencing food security in Saskatchewan, and who is most vulnerable during the COVID-19 Crisis

This article is shortened from the interview’s original length.

Our Community Engagement Specialist at the DSA, Erin Wolfson, sat down with Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer, an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, to discuss the changing face of community food security in Saskatchewan during the COVID-19 crisis. Dr. Engler-Stringer discusses the impacts of COVID-19 to food security, who is most affected, inspiring community responses and the work that must be done to move from responding to immediate needs to food system transformation.

What does food security look like in Saskatchewan pre-COVID-19?

The most recent data that we have about household food insecurity in Saskatchewan pre-COVID-19 is that around 13 percent of the population experience some degree of food insecurity. Food security exists on a kind of continuum, starting at what we call ‘marginal food insecurity’. So people at this point on the continuum are experiencing some stresses, in particular feelings of stress around ensuring that they have enough food to eat on a continual basis. Then we go all the way to the most extreme end of the food security continuum, where people might be missing entire meals or entire days worth of food. Food insecurity exists on this continuum. On that continuum, food insecurity affects about 12.5 to 13 percent of the population in Saskatchewan. 

What is happening with relation to food insecurity in Saskatchewan during COVID-19?

There’s increased demands on services. There’s fewer and fewer places that are open. It’s also this weird combination of some things that are just not even available now, while others have this increase in people accessing them and so on. So, we’re in a really difficult time and because poverty is already a very significant issue in our community, it’s really brought that to the forefront. It exacerbated that problem. So, the income problem, which is really primarily what food insecurity is, the income problem has just gotten worse. 

So, we said that around 13% of people are experiencing food insecurity in Saskatchewan during normal times. During COVID-19, you add the huge numbers of people who’ve lost their jobs, may be experiencing issues of access or many other kinds of family stressors. We’re probably in a situation where that food insecurity has likely doubled. That number is purely based upon what has been communicated about unemployment levels rising, implied by the number of people who’ve applied for EI. So, essentially, we’ve got a very large proportion of the population, given the fact that we’re in a rich country that is experiencing this. 

Dr. Engler-Stringer discusses the effect of school closures and the loss of school food programs during COVID-19 on community food security.

CHEP Good Food is the conduit for school food programs for the Saskatoon Public Schools Division, so they do the bulk buying and they do the training. There are alot of things they do to support school food. I actually met with them on the first day, the day that there was the announcement that schools were about to close. I had a meeting already scheduled there and we were talking through the situation and they were basically trying to figure out what to do because how do you feed kids?

There’s a lot of kids that they know anecdotally – and this is not something that there’s been research on – but they know anecdotally through years and years and years of experience doing this and supporting school food programs, that the only food some kids eat during the day is at school. So it’s breakfast and lunch at school. So some schools have breakfast, some schools have lunch, some schools have breakfast and lunch, and some schools also have snacks. 

So, there are kids – and it’s not a small number of kids – there are kids in this city who only eat when they are at school. In fact, we hear in our research that there are kids that get stressed out on Fridays at school. Friday afternoon is often a very sort of stressful time for certain families and for certain kids from some families, because those kids know that there’s not going to be much, if anything, to eat over the course of the weekend. 

What inspiring community responses have you seen to the COVID crisis related to food security?

What I am most sort of familiar with right now, because I work fairly closely with CHEP Good Food, is how this is being manifested in the work that they’re doing – and it’s been really interesting to see. So how do they reconcile these huge numbers of kids relying on school food programs with a situation where schools are closed? CHEP is trying really hard to do that. 

It’s actually been quite, quite fascinating to watch how this innovation is happening, as they  figure out ‘how do we get food to families when they can’t get it through schools?’. It was very obvious from the very beginning that there would be this dramatic increase in families that were needing access to that food. 

So, initially CHEP was making lunches and they were getting them to families through help from the schools. The schools were contacting families and whoever was interested, their names were being passed on to CHEP. But then CHEP realised that you can’t just feed a kid in a family if the kid is part of a unit. So, providing kids with lunches now doesn’t make any sense. So instead, what they’ve realised is that they need to modify their existing Good Food Boxes. So now, they’re basically making meal kits, like modified Good Food Boxes, to feed the whole family. 

These are the kinds of things that are happening in our community.

Who is being most impacted by food insecurity during COVID-19?

In terms of who, we know that single parent families, especially single mother led families. We know that racialized communities are most impacted – the same communities that are marginalized in general are the same communities that experience food insecurity to a greater degree. So we talk about food insecurity in Indigenous communities as very high, and that is related to a whole series of determinants that are all connected together that create this food insecurity situation. So, definitely those same populations become most affected. 

What I’ve been trying to kind of grapple with in is crisi is who has lost their job and who hasn’t lost their jobs. There’s a huge segment of the service industry where jobs have been lost. So, people are being pushed into poverty, especially while they wait for assistance programs that have been put forward by the government. Relief doesn’t happen immediately, so there are these periods of time of pretty intense financial stress. 

The service industry is in a weird situation at this point, because there’s a huge segment of it, like restaurants that are closed and a lot of people who’ve been laid off, but there are other segments of the service industry where there’s more demand, so there’s more jobs. So like people who work in pharmacies or grocery stores and so on. Those workers who work in the service industry, who are also disproportionately women, are both very vulnerable to losing their jobs, but also to the virus itself. If they still are continuing to work they’re much more exposed to the public and their risk increases. It’s a difficult situation. 

Yesterday I was reading about the number of people who have to take public transportation to get to work because they have no other means of transportation. They have to keep going to work and they live far away from work. So these are all people who are working minimum wage or slightly above minimum wage jobs and they’re having to be exposed in the community. Whereas, you know, I can self isolate in my home. I have this ability to do that and I can work from home. So there are these very complicated extra vulnerabilities that are being thrust upon particular communities, and it disproportionately affects the same who are already who are already not in particularly well-paying jobs and don’t receive a lot of benefits and all of those things. So what was a bad situation, has now just gotten worse, sadly. 

You touched on some of the potential outcomes related to COVID-19 and some of the challenges. Can you elaborate on the challenges and risks that might come from the COVID-19 crisis? 

I think there’s a lot of risks in terms of long term health. I think in the slightly more medium term, my biggest concern is mental health. 

I know how many families are in under-housed or living in crowded housing already, and are now having to stay in like that and are not not able to leave for any length of time. I think the most likely challenges that we’re going to see most quickly are going to be around mental health, domestic violence – those sorts of things. 

When I consider the long term, there’s lots of evidence to show that experiencing periods of food insecurity – and we’re not talking about a month or two, we’re talking likely many months – that’s long enough, especially when it comes to children, to have a long-term impact on health. 

So I think there’s a number of risks, like the basic sort of nutritional health risks. The way that families cope during food insecurity is by eating a very limited range of foods that are often high carbohydrate and high sodium – things like pastas or breads that are inexpensive, but not a lot of other things when they’re struggling. There are long-term nutritional consequences to that, especially when that is experienced in childhood. 

Can you elaborate on opportunities that might or have emerged with the COVID-19 crisis?

Yes. At the same time, I also think we are in a moment of opportunity here. There are some things we could do. I actually think there’s public support in this particular moment, that we might not have had to the same degree outside of this, for some very innovative solutions that could potentially benefit all of us in the long run.

Basic income as one that comes up quite frequently as something that could be done. Well, there’s a lot of caveats to basic income, but I could see us getting to the end of this crisis with Universal Basic Incomes in Canada. I don’t think that’s outside of the realm of possibility. In fact, I think there’s a decent chance that may happen, which could have very beneficial impacts in the long run, especially if it’s done well. 

Also, given my main areas of focus right now which I’m immersed in, I actually do think we can end this with a national universal school lunch program for Canada. I think because there is this recognition that school food is an essential service. It’s become an essential service. 

School food has been done well given the situation in Canada, because it’s targeted. There’s stigma and there’s all sorts of problems with that and it’s totally underfunded. There’s lots and lots and lots of issues. But people are doing the best with what they have. What people are coming to realise is that probably close to two million kids in this country somewhere like the estimates – it’s really difficult to make an accurate estimate – but probably somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million kids in Canada have lunch at school that is provided for them by some sort of a program. So that’s a lot of kids, right? 

There’s so much momentum being built for a national school food program, a universal school food program that I actually think this crisis and recognition could push us over. So just strictly from a food security standpoint here, if we got through to the end of this with Universal Basic Incomes and a national universal school lunch program, I think there is a lot that could be really positive out of this. I’m somewhat hopeful about both of those, so that’s certainly where I’m putting my energy. 

You touched on strategies to help mitigate some of these outcomes and highlighted some promising practices. Any tips for how to make that happen here in Saskatchewan? 

I think this is a moment to have those conversations and really get engaged in what is happening. It’s a difficult situation because on the one hand, we don’t really want people to be leaving their homes, but there’s a need for volunteers. There’s potential risks involved in that. This is one of those moments that armchair activism may be one of the best things that many of us can engage in, meaning to really read and pay attention to what’s going on. 

We can highlight the stories of how communities are responding and also connect that to the greater structural issues that exist. There’s always a risk when you say ‘look how the food bank is now delivering food to people’s homes and having them come to Foodbank’., because yes, that’s wonderful, but also why do we have food banks in the first place? We shouldn’t have food banks.  

In fact, if you talk to the people at the food bank, they will say to you, I wish I did not have a job. I wish the food bank didn’t exist. We have to connect it back to the structural issues that exist. We need to talk about poverty. We need to talk about minimum wages that are well below what is needed in order to live in our communities. We need to talk about incomes. We need to talk about racism. We need to talk about a number of issues. So as long as we’re always connecting back to those structural issues and not just keeping the conversation in the realm of charity and charities as our solution, I think that’s probably the best thing that most people could do right now. 

Do you see any impacts or learnings that might affect your professional community going forward? 

Oh yes. I think specifically related to how we interact with our partners – our community partners – and this learning about responding to what is needed in this moment, and being flexible and being able to pivot or work. Those kinds of things. 

There’s some academics who have been doing that for a long time, and I would sort of count myself generally among that group. I think I am firmly trying to encourage my fellow academics to really think about – OK, what is it you’re doing right now? Is it really what is needed in this moment or are there ways that you could be responding in the relevant community that you work with, whatever that might be, to the needs that are happening right now? Can you allow your work to be driven, at least to a degree, by what is sort of needed in this moment here now? I think there’s probably more people doing that in terms of faculty than there ever were. People can see the crisis in a crisis and I think there’s a number of people who are responding in that way. So, I see that as being a change. 

I also think we’ve figured out how to engage with technology in different ways. It’s both really interesting and in some ways exciting and innovative. However, there are also very particular risks around who has access to technology and how do we ensure access that has the potential to be challenging. But I think especially my biggest concern is really encouraging fellow faculty to respond to what the needs are in whatever way is relevant, based upon what their academic expertise is on that front. 

What would you say is the priority call to action here and who is who is this call to action for? 

Well, in some ways it’s a really difficult question to answer, because normally I would say the priority is incomes, incomes – that we need to ensure that people have a living wage, that we need to ensure that whether it’s a Universal Basic Income or something similar to that. That’s what I would say normally. But in this moment, we’re actually in a crisis situation and there’s just so many people that are literally struggling to feed themselves, whether it’s because they don’t have money to buy food or they can’t leave their homes to buy food. There’s a whole bunch of reasons. 

So in some ways, I feel like what is really needed right now, which you just said, is to just listen to what is being said by the community organizations, respond and do what they say is needed. So if that is getting food boxes to people and delivering those to their homes and doing that kind of service work, then that’s what needs to happen at this moment.

I think that the key thing is to just keep connecting it back to the structural issues. We must ensure that it’s not simply getting food to people, but also connecting it back to poverty. We can even connect it back to how our communities are designed and who lives where and who is closest to grocery stores, and all of those kinds of things. There’s a whole bunch of those conversations that need to be had. 

In the end, the crisis needs to be responded to in the ways that the communities are identifying the needs. If that’s getting food to people, then we need to do that, but not just any food. We want people to have good food and healthy food. We want that food to be sourced from farmers, who may also be struggling because of a whole set of other issues. So, there’s all these ways we can meet immediate needs and do the work well within a broader understanding. 

Do you have any last tips or advice? Advice for decision makers or advice for the general public? 

I think we are in a moment where we have the opportunity to rethink how our society functions. I think personally I’d like to see that we come out of this crisis stronger, because there is potential that we can come out of this in a very serious different kind of crisis. 

I think there’s an immense opportunity to come out of this stronger, to come out of this with a better sense of how to take care of each other in our communities. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity. They don’t come often and nobody wants this to happen the way it has. There’s a lot of challenges with it, but it also does bring this really important opportunity to ask some questions about how we take care of each other and how we ensure that people have the ability to make their own choices. I see many glimmers of hope in all of this. This could be a moment where we really shift our economy in all sorts of exciting and innovative and pro-environmental ways. I really hope that we take advantage of this moment for positive change versus the potential for some real damage. I’m hopeful and I’m wanting to encourage us to move towards what is more hopeful in all of this.