The Hidden Hungry

Insecurity Food Canada - Action Against Hunger

Photo: Our National Program Manager, Mira Lyonblum, facilitating an experiential workshop with Canadian students.
Below is her response to a recent article in The Walrus (April 2019)


When I ask young people what hunger looks like, the image that gets conjured up is generally a dusty rural village, a child wearing little clothing, flies on their face, staring soulfully up at the camera in slow-motion while a sad song plays in the background. This is understandable; for many, it’s the display we’ve been fed on our screens for decades and it seems far removed from our lives.

In reality, food insecurity – inadequate or insecure access to food – is a rampant and growing problem in Canada. A recent article in The Walrus (April 2019) on The Hidden Hungry dives into some of these issues. Recent studies by Proof, a food insecurity research group from the University of Toronto, finds that nearly 4 million Canadians are food insecure. Even this staggering number is a very conservative estimate as it relies heavily on self-reported StatsCan information and misses some of the most at-risk communities, including the incarcerated, people living on reserve or in remote areas, and the homeless.

At least 1 in 6 Canadian youth live with food insecurity. Every day they need to go to school, pay attention, analyze text, deal with dynamic social situations, and try not to get into trouble. While a well-fed brain is able to focus, have energy to stay awake and participate, and self-regulate their changing emotions, a hungry child’s brain is just repeating ‘feedmefeedmefeedme’ in an attempt to survive. They may lash out and be labeled a bully, a term that can follow them through their school career. They may be unable to answer the teacher’s questions and not finish their homework, getting the label of ‘problem student’ and spending more time in the office than the classroom, when really they can only focus on how to stretch their plain sandwich until tomorrow’s breakfast or how to finish homework between their minimum-wage after-school job shifts. Most of these youth are part of the hidden hungry – people who have an address, no matter how temporary, and have a working parent, but who just can’t fill the refrigerator.

A common response that activists in the food work hear is “Well if they’re hungry why can’t they just – ” Just get a job, just take the bus, just apply for social assistance, just go to the food bank, just grow food, just move somewhere else … Through our experiential workshops, we aim to explore why the systems that we live in mean that there is no just. When we set up a simulated supermarket in a classroom and students go grocery shopping based on an assigned profile and try to fill their basket with enough to feed their ‘family’ for a week, we’re exploring the difficult decisions that need to be made between the more nutritious food options and enough to fill our bellies. When we taste spices from around the world and learn about food sovereignty by sharing our own memories, we bring light to the additional struggles that both newcomers and Indigenous Canadians experience when cut off from generations of food traditions.

The first step to creating change is to illuminate these issues. By working with both young people and educators, and supporting them with food education and practical skills, we’re raising a generation who are using their voices to ensure that the ‘hidden hungry’ won’t be hidden for long.