Canada is one of the most affluent nations in the world, widely seen as a high-income nation where people can meet their basic needs. How do we reconcile this with seemingly miles-long food bank lines?
“Overall housing costs have risen from 38% to 50% of a person’s income and this leaves less money for other essentials such as food.”
Food insecurity is pervasive and significant, and the problem has only worsened since Canada began tracking food insecurity in the early 2000s. Throughout 2023, we have seen this issue exacerbated by the rising cost of living. Chief Statistician Anil Arora said that over the past few years, overall housing costs have risen from 38% to 50% of a person’s income and this leaves less money for other essentials such as food. The impact of inflation is most keenly felt among community members who are most vulnerable, particularly those living on low incomes.
The State of Food Insecurity in Canada
The unacceptable fact is that 18.4% of people in Canada, including 24.3% of children, can’t afford the food they need. This was close to a 20% year-over-year increase. For perspective, the level of food insecurity in Canada is more than double that of Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, and Japan, among other countries. As the latest reported data was collected in the first 6 months of 2022, with the ongoing rising cost of living it is certain that a growing number of Canadians will struggle to meet their basic needs.
How can it be that in a nation that is wealthy, grounded in good values, and where the importance of a social safety is unquestioned, the fact of almost 7 million Canadians living with food insecurity isn’t on the front page of our newspapers every day? Why are we seeing complacency in the face of crisis?
COVID-19 and Awareness of Food Insecurity
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and awareness and understanding of the term food insecurity began to gain prominence. Never before had the world faced such a threat to our modern way of life, economy, and the health and safety of billions of people. As many were unable to work, more and more people knew of someone – a neighbour, a family member, or a friend – who was struggling to pay for food. Images of massive lines at food banks across North America were in every news article. An idea emerged that we could “build back better” to create a more just society – a society where people would not need to rely on charity to fulfill their basic needs.
“Unemployment remains low and yet we are facing labour shortages across sectors, while hearing that more and more people are struggling to make ends meet even when holding a full-time job.”
As we moved well beyond the time of pandemic restrictions, “build back better” seems to be a distant dream. Our reality is that we are still living in what seems like uncharted territory with more barriers in the way of a more equitable society. Inflationary pressures have dramatically affected the ability of individuals and households to afford basic necessities, including food. Unemployment remains low and yet we are facing labour shortages across sectors, while hearing that more and more people are struggling to make ends meet even when holding a full-time job.
The Reality of Food Banks
Food bank visits can be considered the “canary in the coalmine” that the numbers of people experiencing food insecurity are rising. Food bank use is at the highest it’s ever been in Canadian history, with more than 1.4 million visits being made to Canadian food banks every month. Data collected last year indicated that one in five Canadians were likely to use a food bank or community organization within the next six months.
“Food bank use is at the highest it’s ever been in Canadian history, with more than 1.4 million visits being made to Canadian food banks every month.”
At the same time, support for food banks has declined as fewer families have the extra funds to participate in food drives and make financial donations. Ottawa Food Bank, one of the largest in the country, recently had to cancel volunteer shifts as there was not enough food for volunteers to sort. Meanwhile, only a quarter of people who are food insecure go to food banks – suggesting many people are going without or are having to find creative ways to feed their families.
The Nuances of Food Inequality
Food insecurity is primarily driven by low income – it is a marker of material deprivation and it does not impact everyone equally. It disproportionately affects households with children, single parents, working-age singles, and those with low educational attainment. One of the biggest disparities can be seen among different racial groups, in particular Black and Indigenous communities, who experience food insecurity rates far higher than the national average. Furthermore, close to 50% of people living in food-insecure households over the age of 15 have a disability.1
“Food insecurity is primarily driven by low income – it is a marker of material deprivation and it does not impact everyone equally.”
The numbers are daunting and the impacts are devastating.
What Are the Impacts of Food Insecurity?
Food insecurity has been linked to a raft of health problems including heart disease, chronic pain, infectious disease, depression, and anxiety disorders. Pretty much every bad health condition you can think of is linked to not having the money to buy the food you need.
People who are food insecure are more likely to be facing multiple chronic conditions at once, and those experiencing the most severe level of food insecurity, including going without food for days at a time, face the most negative health outcomes. Children who live in food-insecure households have an increased risk of developing poor mental health. Dietitians of Canada have deemed food insecurity a social determinant of health and a “serious public health issue”.
The Costs of Food Insecurity
The result is that people experiencing food insecurity land in the healthcare system. Food insecurity is not just an issue of social justice – it is also costing us.
“Severely food insecure adults incur twice the healthcare costs of food secure adults – averaging $2300 more per year.”
Nearly 50% of adults living in severely food-insecure households are unable to afford their prescription costs and end up skipping, delaying, or reducing their medications. Those who are unable to adhere to their medication make greater use of primary care services and are more likely to be admitted to acute care. Severely food insecure adults incur twice the healthcare costs of food secure adults – averaging $2300 more per year. This could mean that as of 2021, the 1.3 million people who are severely food insecure are costing our healthcare system over $3 billion extra per year.
Food insecurity is not a food scarcity issue – Canada produces plenty of food. Emergency relief provided by food banks and food donations helps in the short term but is not a sustainable long-term solution. Food banks have existed for years and have grown in size and scale, yet they have not been able to mitigate rising rates of food insecurity. As the Federal government has largely focused on supporting downstream relief in response to food insecurity, including $330M provided for emergency food in the last several years, a different policy-driven approach is urgently needed to meet the scale of the problem.
Canada Should Set a Target to Reduce Food Insecurity
It’s not that Canadians don’t care about this issue. On the contrary, people want to see food insecurity alleviated. Based on a recent public opinion survey, 82% of Canadians believe the federal government should do more to help people struggling with poverty and hunger in Canada.2 In fact, the same survey also found that 83% of Canadians feel that people going hungry in Canada goes against Canadian values. 86% of Canadians agree that the federal government should ensure no child goes hungry in Canada and that people with disabilities should be supported to ensure they have access to healthy food and other basic necessities.
“There are no Federal government programs or policies focused on reducing food insecurity.”
Yet, there are no Federal government programs or policies focused on reducing food insecurity. The Federal government has distinguished itself through a deep commitment to providing opportunity for all Canadians by addressing systemic issues of poverty and affordability. Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy has led to considerable progress toward reducing poverty by 50% by 2030. The Federal government has made significant policy and program commitments to advance affordable housing, committed to achieving the goal of “zero hunger” through the adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015. The government also launched the Food Policy for Canada in 2019 with the vision that “all Canadians can reliably access a sufficient amount of safe, nutritious and culturally diverse food”.
Targets and commitments drive action. Since setting the poverty reduction strategy in 2018, the federal government of Canada has made great strides toward reaching that goal. Programs like the Canada Child Benefit have helped lift many families above the poverty line. The new Canada Disability Benefit could do the same for people living with disabilities.
Setting a target to reduce food insecurity in Canada will also drive action, alignment and investment. This will require a whole-of-government approach and cross-sector collaboration.
We have reached a crisis point for food insecurity. There is public will to address the issue. It is time to harness the public will to drive political action. It is time to commit to reducing food insecurity in Canada.
1. Draws on data from the 2020 Canada Income Survey. This data was collected among adults 15 years of age and older through a subsample of the Labour Force Survey respondents and used the food security component and the disability screening questions (DSQ).
2. The Gandalf Group. Public Insight Research Survey conducted for the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security between June 8 – June 14, 2023