Food insecurity

by Dr. Chelsea Cole BSc ND

Access to safe and nutritious food is a human right.

No conversation about food and nutrition is complete without acknowledging the sobering realities of food insecurity. Food insecurity refers to the inability to access food due to financial constraints, and encompasses the following: concerns about running out of food before you can afford to buy more, the inability to afford a balanced diet, going hungry, missing meals, and going full days without food due to lack of food and money.1 It is important to realize that once someone is struggling with food insecurity, they are likely struggling with many other expenses as well, including housing, medication, and other basic needs. Food insecurity was a problem in Canada, and worldwide, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but like other societal inequities, became very apparent as the pandemic continued on. We wanted to take a moment to talk about who is most affected by food insecurity within Canada, and consider why it is an important conversation to have in the food, health, and wellness world.

 

Recent findings by PROOF Food Insecurity and Policy Research revealed that 1 in 8 Canadian households were food insecure, which works out to be about 4.4 million people. This is the highest number reported since this data has been collected. These numbers come from a 2017-2018 Statistics Canada survey2, but these statistics do not include First Nations people living on reservations, people living in remote Northern communities, or people who are homeless, so the number is likely much higher considering these groups are at high risk of being food insecure. In fact, the most at risk people are those with low incomes, and limited assets. In addition, Indigenous and Black people are disproportionately affected by food insecurity in Canada. It is important to state that this reality can’t be reduced to a problem with food access, but is a result of longstanding systemic racism within Canada.2 When comparing the provinces and territories, Nunavut had the highest level of food insecure households at 57%, with many people reporting that they were severely food insecure. Overall, food insecurity is more common in single mother homes across Canada, compared to households without children.2 When reading these statistics, it is important to really consider why food insecurity is a reality in our society, and why it disproportionately affects some people over others. In a recent article, two food insecurity researchers stated, “Over the last two decades, we and others have done a lot of research to figure out who is most at risk of food insecurity in Canada and why. This problem has nothing to do with food skills or shopping behaviours. Food insecurity is the product of inadequate, insecure incomes and a lack of assets. Prior to the pandemic, almost two-thirds of food-insecure households in Canada were reliant on income from employment. Many were in low-wage, short-term, part-time, precarious work.”3 Even in households on income assistance, 60% were food insecure.2 This really highlights both the inadequacy of governmental support programs, and the painful reality of what happens when people are not paid a living wage.

Recent findings by PROOF Food Insecurity and Policy Research revealed that 1 in 8 Canadian households were food insecure, which works out to be about 4.4 million people.

Writing this article was the first time that I ever explored the research around food insecurity beyond the statistics of who is affected. Part of the reason I wanted to write this article was to better understand the underlying reasons behind who is most affected, and the proposed solutions. I learned that, “Despite widespread recognition that food insecurity is first and foremost an income problem, policy responses in Canada have focused on food provision, with an emphasis on strengthening the charitable food sector.”4 In fact, the researchers went on to say that there is no evidence that food banks are a solution to food insecurity within Canada. This is likely due in part to that fact that, “the number of food-insecure people in Canada (4.4 million) was four times the number being helped by food banks. There are many reasons for this, only one of which is the limited assistance food banks can provide. Importantly, the needs of people who can’t afford enough to eat go way beyond food. Help from food banks has never been enough to fully meet the needs of those who use them.”3 While reading all of this research, the message that we need a more effective response to food insecurity, that addresses the cause, was loud and clear.

Discussing food insecurity in our society is hard, and while we love to talk about nutrition and share photos of beautiful food, these difficult conversations are necessary. To be honest, it feels irresponsible to not acknowledge that so many people in our communities are food insecure, and it is important to not judge the food choices of others because not everyone has the privilege to freely decide what to cook and eat. There is no easy answer to dealing with food insecurity, but there is also no shortage of people who are trying to help. Palenke Greens is a burlap sack gardening initiative aimed at helping people of African descent facing food insecurity. They talk about the importance of land access, gardening, and racial justice as ways to help improve food security. The Community Food Support initiative offers free food hampers to students and community members who face food insecurity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Carmelle LeMaistre is a local registered acupuncturist who set up a community Wellness Library that offers free wellness supplies, including food, to anyone in need. These are just a few of the community initiatives aimed at helping those facing food insecurity, but we included a longer resource list below.

Here are some additional resources:

British Columbia

Victoria

  1. Tarasuk V. et al (2012) Household food insecurity in Canada, 2012. PROOF.
  2. PROOF (2020) More Canadians are food insecure than ever before and the problem is only getting worse. PROOF.
  3. Tarasuk V, McIntyre L. (2020) A basic income, not expanding food charity, is critical as the pandemic plunges more Canadians into deprivation. Policy Options.
  4. PROOF (2020) Relationship between food banks and food insecurity in Canada. PROOF.

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