A snapshot of food insecurity in Canada
More than 850,000 people turn to food banks to make ends meet every month, according to Food Banks Canada. This means each month, too many Canadians are forced to choose between buying groceries and paying the rent, when no one should have to make such a choice.
When talking about hunger, it’s important to note that “hunger” and “food insecurity” carry two very different meanings. Hunger refers to the physiological state of pain and weakness an individual experiences as a result of a lack of food. On the other hand, food insecurity is a state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited. Food insecurity, whether chronic, seasonal or temporary, leads to serious nutritional consequences and negative health outcomes. The individual-level physiological experience of hunger is closely tied to, and often results from, food insecurity.
There is currently a growing movement to raise awareness about the solvable problem of hunger in Canada. Last week marked Hunger Awareness Week, where food banks across the country host events to tell the stories of their work and of those who use food banks.
Hunger from a global perspective
Deepening poverty is inextricably linked with rising levels of homelessness and food insecurity and hunger; hunger exists because poverty exists.
World hunger, after a decade-long decline, spiked last year. Despite the UN’s goal of eliminating global hunger by 2030, 11 % of the world’s population experienced hunger every day in 2016. This is the first time there has been increase in world hunger since the turn of the century.
According to the UN’s The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in 2017 report, both conflict and climate change are key drivers of food insecurity. Of the 815 million chronically food-insecure and malnourished people in the world, the vast majority – 489 million people –live in countries affected by conflict.
Who uses food banks in Canada?
Canadians who visit food banks come from all backgrounds. They include families with children, individuals living on social assistance or fixed income, and employed people whose low wages do not cover basic living essentials. The latest Hunger Count captured a snapshot of food bank users in Canada:
- Across the country, children and youth are overrepresented among people helped by food banks; while people under age 18 account for 19% of the Canadian population, they make up 36% of individuals receiving food assistance.
- Families with children make up nearly half of households helped by food banks. Lone-parent households and their children are still one of Canada's most economically vulnerable groups. Though they make up only 10% of all Canadian households, they account for 22% of food bank users.
- While 7% of households helped by food banks have no income at all, food bank use is high among both working and unemployed Canadians. In fact, 1 in 6 households helped by food banks are currently or recently employed. Additionally, many people are struggling on fixed incomes:
- 45% of households assisted are on social assistance
- 18% receive disability-related income supports
- 8% receive the majority of their income from a pension.
- Single people make up 28% of all Canadian households, but account for 44% of households helped by food banks, an increase from 39% in 2008.
- Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity; nearly half of food bank clients in Canada receive welfare as welfare rates in Canada fall below the poverty line and do not ensure food security. Additionally, 13% of people helped by food banks are immigrants and refugees.
- People that receive disability support are another large group of food bank clients, accounting for one in five households helped by food banks as disability support is often not enough to help clients feed themselves.
- Currently, seniors account for 4.3% of food bank users. Canada has a rapidly aging society and life expectancy is increasing. If current disability programs and rates do not improve there is an expected rise in food insecurity for this demographic.
It should be noted the national picture of food bank use tends to be strongly influenced by the larger urban centres like Toronto, which can obscure the reality in small towns. Hunger is a reality for tens of thousands of the Canada’s rural residents as well. In small towns and rural areas, people accessing food banks tend to be slightly older and slightly more likely to be living on a pension. Moreover, the proportion of Indigenous Peoples accessing food banks in rural areas, at 29% of the total, is significantly higher than the national average.
Hunger and malnutrition
As food is one of the most flexible household expenses, and it is often nutrition that suffers when money is tight. When resources for food become scarce and people’s means to access nutritious food diminish, they often rely on less-healthy, denser food choices that can lead to overweight and obesity. Therefore, food insecurity and obesity often co-exist. Many countries still face high levels of undernutrition, but they are now also experiencing an increasing burden of people suffering from obesity and diabetes.
Additionally, food insecurity and poor nutrition during pregnancy and childhood are associated with metabolic adaptations that increase the risk of numerous negative outcomes, including impaired cognitive ability, weakened performance at school and obesity in later life.
Initiatives to reduce the need for food banks
Hunger, as a symptom of poverty, is a structural problem; the world produces enough food to feed everyone. Sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty require a mix of system-based policies aimed at improving the incomes and income security of poor Canadians, such as raising social assistance rates and minimum wages, improving access to employment insurance and developing a national child care system.
To significantly reduce the need for food banks in Canada, the Hunger Count report recommends a national poverty strategy, a basic liveable income and new investments in Northern food security.
The federal government is currently developing the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, to reduce poverty and improve the economic well being of all Canadian families. To learn more about the plans, including consultations with Canadians across the country and establishing a Ministerial Advisory Committee on Poverty, visit canada.ca.
Ilyana Keohane is a Communications Officer for A Way Home Canada, a national coalition dedicated to preventing and ending youth homelessness. She is currently pursuing a degree in psychology and sociology at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Her interests include mental health advocacy, affordable housing solutions and LGBTQ2S issues.
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.