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  • Nicola Moore

What is Food Insecurity?

Updated: Apr 27

As this topic gains more traction I am constantly asked this question; what is food insecurity? I hope to explain it here on my blog. I want you to really understand how it has become a crisis for families across Canada and around the globe. I will say that some of these facts I knew from personal experience and others I had to google to get the exact numbers; but still these numbers are still inaccurate as we are in a Pandemic crisis and I feel they are much worse.

Household food insecurity is the the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. This is a serious public health problem in Canada. The last survey I checked said that 1 in 8 households were food insecure. This means that over 4.4 million Canadians have to choose between food, medication and bills. And out of that number, 1.2 million were children under 18 years old. So our children are going hungry because parents cannot afford healthy nutritious meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is why I am concerned. The stress we have as mothers, as families to put food on the table that will help our children grow can cause mental health issues to arise.


While food banks are a well-known public response to food insecurity, most food insecure households do not use food banks and there is no evidence that food charity is a durable solution. I feel like this is a "band-aid" solution to our problem and I feel that our government needs to act on food insecurity through income-based interventions.


My research found the problem with food insecurity in Canada was found in the early 1980s. The 80s was a time of economic recession when communities across the country noted that people in their midst were going hungry. Charitable food assistance programs were established in response. These programs took the form of food banks, community organizations established to collect donated food and items and redistribute them to those in need. Although initially intended as a temporary emergency response, food banks rapidly grew in number as did the number of people using their services.


The most recent information on the extent of the problem of food insecurity in Canada comes from the 2017–18 Canadian Community Health Survey. According to the survey, 12.7 per cent of households were food insecure, including 4.0 per cent marginally food insecure, 5.7 per cent moderately food insecure, and 3.0 per cent severely food insecure. These household percentages translate to 4.4 million Canadians living in food insecure households. This is likely an underestimate of the true number because the survey excludes some highly vulnerable groups such as First Nations peoples living on-reserve and homeless people. Which makes me think that food insecurity is an income problem. It's about more than not having enough food.


Food-insecure households spend significantly less than food-secure households on everything — not just food, but also housing, clothing, other necessities, investments, and discretionary categories of expenditure. Individuals and families that are food insecure are more likely to have inadequate and insecure incomes, to have precarious employment, to live in insecure, substandard housing, and to not fill drug prescriptions because of the cost. That is a scary fact.


Food insecurity is a serious public health problem in Canada because individuals’ health and well-being is tightly linked to their household food security status. Food-insecure mothers are as likely as other women to start breastfeeding, but are less able to keep breastfeeding, which is a serious problem for families unable to afford infant formula. Among children, exposure to severe food insecurity (measured as child hunger) has been linked to poorer health status and the later development of a variety of chronic health conditions, including asthma and depression. Adults in food-insecure households are much more likely than food-secure adults to have chronic physical and mental health problems, including conditions like depression and diabetes.


Canada has a well-established network of social programs that provide support to individuals and families facing financial hardships but its not enough. These include social assistance, Employment Insurance, child and family benefits, and old-age pensions. Although not designed to protect recipients from food insecurity, a growing body of evidence suggests that the amount of income provided through these programs is a key determinant of recipients’ food insecurity status. Whereas most households reliant on the social assistance programs are food insecure, pensioners have the lowest rate of food insecurity in the country, a finding that is explained in part by the more adequate and secure incomes provided to pensioners compared to those on welfare. I mentioned in my interviews that increases in child benefit programs can reduce the severity of food insecurity seen in families with children.


Food insecurity has also been shown to drop markedly among low-income adults once they become eligible for public old-age pensions. This raises the question of whether a basic income for all Canadians at risk of food insecurity might be a way of ensuring an income floor that would provide enough money for them to meet their basic needs, including food.


I want to see a change in Canada and help end food insecurity. This is why I speak out. Because no Canadian family should go hungry. No Canadian at all.


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