Canada’s food insecurity crisis requires urgent attention.
According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, household food insecurity across the ten provinces has hit an all-time high. Our new report, based on data from StatsCan Canadian Income Survey, reveals that the percentage of households with insufficient or insecure access to food due to financial constraints increased to 6.9 million Canadians. An increase of 1.1 million from 2021, living in households where experiences range from worrying about running out of food before they can afford to buy more, to not eating at all for entire days due to a lack of income.
A quarter of food-insecure households were severely food insecure, meaning that 1.5 million Canadians had to cut or skip meals over the past 12 months. The rate of household food insecurity varies dramatically across the provinces, ranging from 13.8% in Québec to 22.9% in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2022. Every province experienced an increase from the previous year, Healthcare System Impact these numbers are significant because they tell us about more than just household food situations.
By the time someone reports being unable to afford the food they need, they’re likely compromising spending on other necessities, like housing and prescription medications. Living in these circumstances is very harmful to people’s health and well-being. The health implications extend beyond poor nutrition and diet-related diseases to a sweeping array of adverse health outcomes, including physical and mental health conditions and premature death. When we examine the health administration records of Canadians living in food-insecure households, the extraordinary toll food insecurity is taking on individuals and on our healthcare system becomes apparent.Because their health is worse, people living in these households require more healthcare. Both the children and the adults in food-insecure households are more likely to use outpatient services and to be hospitalized. Once admitted, they stay in acute care for longer and are more likely to require readmission. The increased use of the healthcare system translates to greater healthcare costs and an additional burden on our public system that simply isn’t necessary. Evidence-based Policy Interventions Reducing food insecurity requires concerted efforts by federal and provincial governments to address the root cause — the inadequacy of household incomes to meet basic needs. Providing better income support gives households a fighting chance of managing sudden losses of income or increases in expenses without having to compromise necessities.
Studies have shown food insecurity decreases when low-income households receive more money via child benefits or social assistance programs. That’s also the case when households transition to a more adequate and stable source of income — namely, when low-income adults become eligible for public pensions programs, Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement. However, the way these programs are currently designed means our social safety net is anything but.Public Income Supports Households with limited or no employment income and reliant on provincial social assistance or Employment Insurance are very likely to be food insecure. Relying on social assistance almost guarantees food insecurity; seven in 10 households on social assistance were food insecure in 2022.In most jurisdictions, social assistance benefits aren’t indexed to inflation, so the poorest people in our communities become even poorer as prices rise.
Provinces should look to raise and index benefit amounts, asset limits and earning exemptions so that recipients have enough for basic needs while in these programs of last resort. Households reliant on employment income fare better, but simply having a job isn’t enough to prevent food insecurity. In fact, the main source of income for 60 per cent of food-insecure households in the 10 provinces is salaries and wages. The policies meant to support workers in need, like the Canada Worker Benefit and similar provincial benefits, are clearly insufficient.There’s also a need to expand job opportunities and improve the quality and stability of employment through policies like higher employment standards, support for collective bargaining and increased minimum wage, which several provinces are embracing. Children in food-insecure households The Canada Child Benefit has been widely credited for reducing child poverty, but this benefit goes to 90 per cent of families in Canada. In stretching itself so thin, the benefit isn’t providing enough support to the families that really need it.Just having a child in the household means a higher risk of food insecurity in Canada.
Instead, we’ve almost exclusively seen small, limited-time benefits, like the federal Grocery Rebate, and continued funding for community food programs as the response to the hardships Canadians are facing. The noteworthy exception is the newly announced Poverty Reduction Plan in Newfoundland and Labrador. The existing research suggests that it will help reduce food insecurity in that province.Food Insecurity Festers The prevalence and severity of food insecurity in Canada has likely already worsened since 2022, given continued high inflation — particularly the record-setting increases in the cost of food, rent and mortgage interest — and a lack of major policy action to offset the added burden on households.The persistence of food insecurity in Canada is a policy choice.
By not doing more to improve the adequacy and stability of household resources, our federal and provincial governments are choosing to let food insecurity fester. In doing so, they are allowing the health of millions of Canadians to be eroded as we unnecessarily tax our already over-burdened healthcare system.