Food insecurity

Taking a wide angle view of food insecurity (see the Ryerson 5As of food security in the Framework section), then most Canadians are currently food insecure  or at significant risk of becoming so.  When one adds  the amount of poverty - related food insecurity (see below) with the levels of food-related chronic disease, food access issues, the difficulties in many parts of the country acquiring culturally and personally appropriate diets, on-going challenges with food safety, and national food supply vulnerabilities associated with market-distortions and environmental degradation (see other parts of this Problem section), then most of us are touched in some way by food insecurity.

But, income-related food insecurity is the most acute and immediate problem and the primary focus of this section. Canada's income security is now described as one of the weakest in the industrial world.  Almost 5 million Canadians live in poverty, 1 Canadian in 7 (Canada without Poverty and Citizens for Public Justice, 2016).  All these people eat. In 2012, 1 Canadian household in 8 experienced income-related food insecurity at some level, meaning “inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints”, and this involved some 4 million people including over a million children (1 child in 6 lived in a food insecure household) (Tarasuk et al., 2014).  According to the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), household food insecurity among First Nations is more than twice the national average (28.2%, excluding First Nations Peoples living on reserve, versus 12.6%). Among First Nations peoples living on reserve (about 43% of the total First Nations population), the levels of food insecurity are even higher, although the data is not as comprehensive. For four provinces, the levels of food insecurity on reserve were: 41% in British Columbia (2008-2009); 38% in Manitoba (2010); 29% in Ontario (2011-2012); 47% in Alberta (2013). Four in ten (41%) Inuit aged 15 and older lived in food insecure households (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

Sriram and Tarasuk (2015) concluded that food insecurity appears to result from the interplay of household resources (income, assets, access to credit) and household expenditures (shelter, food,  other necessities, and debt).  Those with lower income and significant household expenses are more likely to report being food insecure.  Income precarity and material deprivation are, thus, significant dimensions of this situation.  The working poor (receiving low wages for their work) and those receiving government benefits are very likely to be food insecure (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

Food insecure individuals are also more likely to have suboptimal diets and poorer physical and mental health, particularly depression, heart disease and diabetes  (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).  The food insecure are more likely than those not food insecure to be high cost users of health care services.  Food insecurity also compromises disease management. A reduction in food insecurity would reduce health care costs  (Fitzgerald et al., 2015; Tarasuk et al., 2016; see also Health problems, this section).

Food banks remain the most visible response to food insecurity.  The focus on food relief is part of an historical charity model.  With the best of intentions and driven by very capable emergency food professionals, they are unable to tackle the root causes of food insecurity. Unfortunately, their actions can be complicit in exacerbating the problems, first by allowing governments to support the charity model with grants rather than address the socio-economic conditions that address food insecurity (cf. Riches, 1986; 2018) and second by partnering on charitable food donation projects with corporations that are themselves, because of employment and wage practices, the cause of significant food insecurity (cf. Mendly-Zambo et al., 2021; Azadian et al., 2022). It is estimated that only about 20% of food insecure households use food banks, and because of supply restrictions,  typically only receive 3-5 days of food staples per month (Dieticians of Canada, 2016). All this means that the approach is insufficient to address the scope and depth of the problem.

Food insecurity also occurs at multiple inter-related scales - individual, household, region, nation, globe - and is subject to global forces.  Climate change provides a telling example of these dynamics as it is clearly linked to food insecurity and health problems in Canada.  All aspects of supply chains are impacted negatively by climate change impacts, and these negative impacts are expressed in communities and households, and climate change related weather disruptions can have major implications for food distribution at a regional level (cf. Schnitter and Berry, 2019).  The 2021 flooding in southern BC is a noteworthy example of how supply logistics are disrupted.