Alicia Chan, Public Health Nutritionist, Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention
September 19, 2019
Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council and Community Food Assessment
Food and Health in Windsor and Essex County
The total economic burden of unhealthy eating is estimated to be $5.6 billion in Ontario, including $1.8 billion for inadequate vegetable and fruit consumption (which is used a population indicator for healthy eating). According to the Windsor-Essex Community Needs Assessment Update 2019 (Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, 2019), only one quarter (26.8%) of the population consume vegetables and fruit five or more times a day with the greatest impact on individuals that are single, male, living in a household with low income and/or education. Healthy eating behaviours play a critical role in promoting health and in preventing, managing, and treating various chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
Food insecurity, financial constraints leading to a compromise in diet quality or quantity, is an ongoing issue in Windsor and Essex County, where, according to data from the Canadian Community Health Survey (2013-2014), 10.8% of households experience moderate or severe food insecurity, and 9.7% of children experience moderate or severe food insecurity (Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, 2019).
Food insecurity negatively influences the physical, mental, and social health of families and individuals, increasing risk of diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease, poor sleep, iron deficiency, depression, and other mental health outcomes (PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research, 2016a). Mothers experiencing food insecurity are also more likely to discontinue exclusive breastfeeding sooner than mothers with food security.
In the absence of adequate income to purchase food, many residents have engaged in alternate avenues of food access, including food charity (e.g., food banks) and other community food programs. For example, the Windsor Essex Food Bank Association (WEFBA) reported that there were over 123,000 visits to WEFBA food banks in 2018, which represented a 5% increase from 2017.
Over the past few years, the WECHU has become more involved in working with various community members to address food and nutrition issues at the systems level, leading to the formation of a food policy council (FPC) and the undertaking of a community food assessment (CFA). The formation of the FPC not only helps to address nutrition and healthy eating issues in a more coordinated and comprehensive fashion, but also creates more opportunities to engage in other health issues, such as climate change, food waste, improving rural health, and improving the health of agricultural workers.
Previous Food Systems Work in Windsor and Essex County
While food insecurity and challenges with the food systems have existed for decades, discussions about change were stimulated by the Hungry for Change Report, released in 2009. The Food Matters Windsor-Essex County (FMWEC) collaborative was established after a successful Ontario Trillium Foundation grant application in 2010, fostering key partnerships and laying the foundation for food systems work in the region including work on the Good Food Charter in 2014. In 2015, community funders convened as the Food Security Strategy Steering Committee to initiate the development of a food security strategy for the next ten years. The establishment of the FPC emerged as a key recommendation.
Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council
Food Policy Councils bridge governments, businesses, and citizens to facilitate partnerships and collaborative actions to identify and address issues that affect the food system. Examples of health topics that either influence or are influenced by the food system include community food security, equitable access to food, food affordability, food literacy, urban and school gardening, the effects of climate change on the agricultural economy, and migrant worker health. Such issues stand to benefit greatly from coordinated, integrated, and meaningful improvements to the food system, which in turn will contribute to improving healthy eating behaviours, stimulating the local economy, and making the food system more environmentally and socially just.
In early 2017, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) invited a wide range of stakeholders representing community organizations, non-profit organizations, and City and County officials to form a steering committee. The goal of the steering committee was to develop the foundation required to establish the Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council (WEFPC). This included determining its structure, membership, and key logistics and processes. Following a round of community engagement sessions, recruitment for the WEFPC occurred in late 2017, and its first meeting was held in January 2018. A competitive application-based process was undertaken to recruit the best mix of the most qualified individuals to become members of the WECFPC. Currently, the WEFPC is comprised of stakeholders representing a wide range of food system sectors and interests, including farmers, small business operators, non-profit organizations, educators, City and County officials and appointees, and concerned citizens. WECHU provides resource and administrative support for the WEFPC.
Community Food Assessment Report
A Community Food Assessment (CFA) was undertaken in 2018, with the aim to provide an understanding of the current and desired state of Windsor and Essex County’s local food system. A comprehensive exercise was undertaken to gather all available data on the food system, identify gaps in knowledge, explore community insights about the food system, and engage key stakeholders in dialogue. Creative Momentum Consulting, with the support of public health nutritionists and dietitians from the WECHU, conducted the research and created the report. Data was gathered through a county-wide online survey, community conversations, and key stakeholder engagement sessions. The Community Food Assessment also received financial support through the Windsor-Essex Community Foundation. The CFA report was shared with members of the WEFPC to help inform priority-setting exercises, which occurred in May and June 2019. The final report was released to the public in September 2019.
WEFPC Action and Evaluation Planning
In 2018 and early 2019, the WEFPC developed and ratified its vision, mission, and value statements, as well as its Terms of Reference. The members also set major priorities areas for action moving forward. The determination of priorities was a multi-step process, which included determining the selection criteria for priorities, reviewing the draft CFA report, identifying recommendations, categorizing recommendations into major topic areas, and determining the five key areas to address. In the end, the WECFPC selected the following five priority areas:
- Food insecurity and equitable food access
- School food literacy and education
- Supporting local small businesses
- Food waste and waste management
- Celebration of food
Five subcommittees were formed to address each of the priorities above, and action plans have been under development over the summer months. The WECHU’s Program Evaluation Specialist was previously invited to provide a workshop on planning and evaluation to prepare the WEFPC for this step. The WEFPC will next meet in late September to operationalize these proposed plans in order to move forward. A sixth subcommittee was established to manage communications for the WEFPC, including providing support to the WECHU for the dissemination of the CFA report.
Food system: An interconnected network of individuals, processes, practices, and structures that contribute to all aspects of food, including food production, processing, distribution, access, consumption, education, and waste management.
Household food insecurity: the uncertainty or inability to acquire sufficient food because of financial constraints (PROOF Food Insecurity and Policy Research, 2019b). Three levels of severity exist:
- Marginal food insecurity: worrying about running out of money for food and limiting food selection due to cost
- Moderate food insecurity: compromising diet quality or quantity due to a lack of money
- Severe food insecurity: reducing food intake, missing meals, going for days without food due to cost
- PROOF Food Insecurity and Policy Research. (2016a). The Impact of Food Insecurity on Health. Retrieved from https://proof.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/health-impact-factsheet.pdf
- PROOF Food Insecurity and Policy Research. (2016b). Monitoring Food Insecurity in Canada. Retrieved from https://proof.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/monitoring-factsheet.pdf
- Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. (2019). Community Needs Assessment 2019 Update. Windsor, Ontario.
The following individuals contributed to this report:
Alicia Chan, MPH RD, Public Health Nutritionist, Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention
Mariel Munoz, MPH RD, Public Health Nutritionist, Healthy Schools