Food insecurity in Canada is a big problem. There are millions in Canada without enough food to eat, affecting their mental and physical health. Elderly people are choosing between food and medicine, and children are skipping lunch because there isn’t any food in the cabinets.
Eliminating food insecurity could improve the quality of life for millions of people in the country. Here, we discuss the real effects of food insecurity, and how we all need to work together to eradicate it.
What we’ll be discussing:
Food insecurity is a lack of access to, or ability to purchase, enough food for proper nutrition and health. This can mean a problem affording food, or an issue with getting access to quality food. But that’s not the only way someone can be food insecure. It can also mean not having the proper knowledge about nutrition, like the right ways to store food and the right amounts to consume, or not having the proper tools to make food (e.g. clean drinking water or a working stove).
One in eight households in Canada has inadequate or insecure access to food. That adds up to 4.4 million people, including 1.2 million children being food insecure. And regardless of how food insecurity manifests, it can cause serious issues. For adults, the accessibility to healthy food can increase the risk of obesity since cheaper foods are typically high in calories and lack nutritious value. This can lead to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes. Not to mention, the stress of not knowing where your next meal is coming from or how you will feed your children can increase the chances of developing high blood pressure. It can also lead to poorer mental health, where individuals may experience anxiety and depression. Additionally, adults who are food insecure are more likely to die prematurely than their food-secure counterparts. The average lifespan of a food-insecure adult is nine years shorter. For children, it can increase the risk of behavioural problems like hyperactivity and aggression. It can also stunt their growth, and decrease their ability to focus in the classroom. What’s more, children who are food insecure have a higher likelihood of developing asthma and anemia.
There are three levels of food insecurity, which are marginal, moderate, and severe. When a person is marginally food insecure there may be gaps in nutrition or times when there isn’t quite enough to eat. Living in an area without good access to fresh foods, for example, could create marginal food insecurity. Or it can be experienced by families on a very tight budget.
Moderate food insecurity means a higher risk of going hungry. Families may not have nutritious food for their children, and parents might go hungry to make sure their kids can eat. Deciding between paying a bill or buying food is also common, and the nutritional quality of the food may not be very good.
When a person is severely food insecure they miss meals for extended periods of time and ration their food. This is a dire situation that can result in significant malnutrition, underweight children who may not grow properly, or obesity due to the quality of low-cost foods. Using food banks may be a common practice for Canadians experiencing food insecurity, but food banks aren’t always available. So people with severe food insecurity can go hungry for days on end.
Food insecurity is commonly associated with homelessness, poverty, and unemployment. While these are factors that contribute to food insecurity, there are other aspects as well. Low-paying jobs and precarious work also play a role.
In Canada, most households that are food insecure are in the workforce – 65 percent to be exact. But simply having a job does not protect people from food insecurity. Research shows that low wage jobs and precarious work does not provide enough income to purchase healthy, nutritious food on a regular basis.
Food insecurity is also deeply rooted in systemic forms of oppression. Due to systemic racism, racialized Canadians are more likely to be unemployed, or have a lower income. For example, 20.8 percent of racialized Canadians live in low income households, in comparison to 12.2 percent of non-racialized people. As well, employers are about 40 percent more likely to interview a job applicant with an english-sounding name despite identical education, skills and experience. This in turn eliminates many racialized individuals from potential employment and income. Without the necessary income and job opportunities, racialized Canadians are at a higher risk of being food insecure.
While food insecurity is found throughout Canada, there are some areas where it is more prevalent than others. Food insecurity differs by province.
For example, 57 percent of households in Nunavut experience food insecurity at some level. Maritime provinces and other territories also had higher rates of food insecurity when compared with Western and Central regions. Even in regions with the lowest levels of food insecurity, such as Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia, one in 10 households still reported experiencing issues.
It may be easy to think that food insecurity only happens abroad. But Canada is not immune. Many people are going hungry and don’t know when their next meal is going to come from. We need to act now to meet the immediate needs of hunger and increase food security.
Food insecurity can impact anyone. In Canada alone, there are millions of people who live in food insecure households. Some have jobs, own a home, and are even employed.
However, there are certain groups of people who are more vulnerable to food insecurity in Canada. This is partly due to the systemic oppression that is embedded in our food systems. There are also vulnerable populations facing food insecurity, such as children who don’t have the independence or resources to purchase food for themselves.
Among the biggest underlying causes of food insecurity in Indigenous communities are the loss of land rights, government-led assimilation practices like residential schools, and the banning of cultural practices and languages. For example, losing land stops Indigenous Peoples from growing crops and livestock to support themselves and their families, and banning cultural practices and languages prevents them from being able to pass down knowledge and techniques about food and food gathering from generation to generation.
Especially for Indigenous Peoples living in remote and Northern communities, many are turning to commercial grocery stores. But the cost of nutritious food in these stores is extremely high. For example, in Nunavut, strawberries cost approximately $14 in comparison to $4 in Toronto. This is a significant problem as it is unaffordable for many, further increasing the accessibility of food.
Due to these factors and many more, food insecurity is prevalent in Indigenous communities. In fact, twenty-eight percent of Indigenous households are food insecure in comparison to 11 percent of White households. Since nutritious and culturally relevant foods are typically inaccessible, many must turn to cheaper foods that are low in nutritional value but high in calories and sodium. This can cause an uptick in obesity and other health conditions. Eighty-two percent of all Indigenous adults are overweight or obese. One-fifth of them have diabetes. These issues represent rates that are double and triple the national averages, respectively.
Black households are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. One of the major factors for this is the existence of systemic racism, which creates barriers in accessing the proper resources to acquire healthy foods.
Black Canadians are more likely to face unemployment, work precarious jobs and have low income due to racism. In fact:
Without enough income, it is extremely difficult to purchase nutritious food on a regular basis, which increases the likelihood of experiencing food insecurity. Whereas 11 percent of White households are food insecure, the number jumps to a staggering 28 percent for Black households. This seeps into the experience of children where those who are Black are 34 percent more likely to be food insecure compared to 10 percent of white children.
The high rate of food insecurity has serious consequences for the Black community. As stated by community advocate and community-builder, Melana Roberts: “This disparity has been linked to the increased likelihood of developing chronic diseases, like diabetes, asthma, and depression, and to poor educational and health outcomes, like learning challenges, low graduation rates and low self-esteem.”
Until racism is addressed in Canada, food insecurity will continue to be an issue for Black Canadians.
In households with children, the prevalence of food insecurity is higher than in adult-only households. One in six children under 18 is affected.
Being without healthy food at an early age contributes to increased risks of depression, asthma, and hyperactivity. What’s more, it can increase the risk of obesity as lower quality, high calorie foods are cheaper. It can also create vitamin deficiencies, which can create bone deformities and make children more susceptible to illnesses. Food insecurity can also cause fatigue, making it hard to focus in school. This can set them back academically.
Access to nutritious food is an important part of ensuring children of all ages are healthy. The more they struggle with food insecurity in their formative years, the probability of serious consequences increase.
Even before the pandemic, Canada had a major food insecurity problem. Over 800,000 people would access food banks each month. Once the pandemic hit, more people were out of work. There were also food supply issues due to border closures, and shutdowns of food production plants. The number of people accessing food banks dramatically increased, by an additional 20 percent. In Calgary alone, one organization saw 1,000 people accessing their food services each day, up from 400 a day the previous year.
That’s why Unite for Change created the COVID-19 Community Care Fund. It supports over 500 charities that are responding to the immediate and long-term effects of COVID-19 – this includes food insecurity. Your donation will help increase access to food banks, housing programs, mental health services, crisis intervention, and other urgent needs.
While food insecurity in Canada is a big problem there are ways to help eliminate it.
One way is by establishing a universal basic income. This means no one’s earnings would fall below a set income floor – this would be adjusted based on the cost of living and location.
Given that racialized households – specifically Indigenous Peoples and Black Canadians are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, another important step would be to increase food sovereignty. This concept prioritizes sustainable food production, distribution, and consumption. But it also emphasizes the need for social justice, ensuring all citizens have a say in how food is produced, distributed, and consumed.
Last but not least is diversifying where our food comes from. Ensuring a healthy balance between locally sourced foods and exports will help our food systems withstand disruptions and shocks. Local food production reduces the risk of food supply issues and shortages, which we experienced during the pandemic.
In addition to some of the solutions mentioned, there are ways we as individuals can help eliminate food insecurity in Canada:
Donate food and money to food banks.
Support sustainable food production that increases access to healthy, locally sourced foods.
Minimize food waste.
Learn more about food insecurity in Canada and share your knowledge with your friends and family.
Work with local organizations and charities that are increasing food security.
One of the best ways to help end food insecurity in Canada is to make a donation. Our End Hunger Fund includes over 400 registered charities that are committed to meeting the immediate needs of people experiencing hunger. Your gift will go towards food banks, school breakfast programs, community gardens, and more.
Our Land and Food Justice Fund is another great opportunity to help make a difference. By supporting this Fund you are helping organizations that are connecting programs, farmers, and community leaders across Canada to build an equitable food system, which addresses the underlying fundamental issues of food insecurity. This helps ensure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious foods.
Now more than ever we need to take bold action. No one should ever go hungry or worry about when their next meal will be. Help eradicate food insecurity today.