Food insecurity is a rising problem in many countries across the globe, including Canada. The term refers to insecure or inadequate access to food because of financial constraints. It is a marker of material deprivation and a public health problem.

In this article, we focus on food insecurity in Canada including the impact of income on food insecurity, the health implications of food insecurity, and what can be done to improve the situation in Canada.

Food Insecurity Statistics for Canadians

  • Almost 6 million Canadians living in the ten provinces live in households facing some level of food insecurity.
  • Nunavut has the largest proportion of households living with food insecurity with almost 50% of households facing moderate or severe food insecurity.
  • While 5.8 million people in the provinces face food insecurities, only 1.2 million of them use food banks.
  • Over 60% of households relying on social assistance face food insecurities.
  • Over half of all the food-insecure households in Canada are working households.
  • Households living in rented accommodation are more likely to be food insecure.
  • One in five children living in the provinces lives in food-insecure households.
  • Over 30% of Indigenous households are living in food insecurity.

Three Categories of Food Insecurity

If a household in Canada is not food secure, it can fall into one of the three food insecurity categories, which are marginal, moderate, and severe. A household with marginal food insecurity worries about running out of food. They may only have access to a limited selection of food because they lack the money to spend on food.

Households in the moderate category often compromise the quantity or quality of food because of financial restraints. If a household is affected by severe food insecurity, they will reduce their food intake and miss meals. Some extremely food-insecure households can go days without proper meals.

Food Insecurity Affects Almost 6 Million Canadians in The Provinces

In 2021, 15.9% of households living in the provinces were affected by food insecurity. This represents 5.8 million Canadians and 1.4 million of those people were children. These numbers are not an accurate representation of the real status of food insecurity in Canada as the data only includes the ten provinces.

The data does not include people who live in the territories, people living on First Nation reserves, or homeless people. However, these groups are at the highest risk of facing food insecurity in Canada.

Food Insecurity Across The Provinces

Out of the ten provinces, Alberta with 20.3% has the highest rate of households facing food insecurity. It is followed by New Brunswick with 19% and Saskatchewan with 18.8%. The provinces with the lowest food insecurity were Quebec with 13.1% and British Columbia with 14.9%.

Households in Alberta are also the most likely to be affected by severe food insecurity with 6.3% of the households falling into this category. New Brunswick is almost equally high with 5.9% of households in the severe category. The percentages of households facing severe food insecurity were the lowest in Quebec at 2.8% and British Columbia at 3.2%.

Almost Half of Nunavut’s Population Faced Food Insecurities in 2020

While the data from 2021 does not include the territories, food insecurity has always been high in the northernmost parts of Canada and in particular in Nunavut. According to the data from 2020, 46.1% of the population in Nunavut faced some level of food insecurity in 2020 and 23.3% of the people lived in severely food-insecure households.

23.1% of the people in the Northwest Territories and 15.3% in Yukon lived in households affected by moderate or severe food insecurity. According to Food Banks Canada, the situation in the territories is so much worse compared to the rest of the country because of the lack of employment opportunities, the adverse effects of climate change, and reduced road access during the winters.

Food Insecurity Compared to the Use of Food Banks in Canada

While the number of people using food banks in Canada has sometimes been used to measure the level of food insecurity in Canada, it does not give us a very accurate picture. While approximately 1,2 million people in Canada use food banks, 5.8 million people are living in food-insecure households in the provinces alone.

However, what we can learn from these figures is that food banks are often the last option for Canadians living in food insecurity.

Income And Food Insecurity

It is hardly surprising that food insecurity in Canada is closely linked to household income. Households with the lowest income bracket have the highest risk of facing severe food insecurity. Households that earn less than $20,000 after tax represent almost 40% of all households facing moderate or severe food insecurity.

When a household earns between $20,000 and $30,000, the percentage of severely food-insecure households drops down to 12.5% and moderate households to 15%. Interestingly, according to the data published on Proof, the percentage of households facing severe food insecurity is lowest when a household earns between $70,000 and $80,000 after tax and goes slightly up again for households earning $80,000 to $90,000.

People Who Rely on Income Support Are More Likely to Face Food Insecurities

People whose main income comes from provincial disability and welfare programs are the most likely to face food insecurity. 64.1% of households relying on social assistance are affected by some level of food insecurity. Almost half of these households face severe food insecurity.

During COVID-19, many households in Canada received COVID-19 benefits. Data shows that for many, these benefits were not adequate to cover necessities, with 41.6% of households facing food insecurities.

The households that were the least likely to be affected by food insecurity were those with a regular salary either from employment or self-employment at 13.7% and people on private retirement pensions at 3.9%. The percentage of households living on public pensions was relatively low at 14.5%.

Food Insecurity is a Serious Problem For Many Working Canadians

Despite the percentage of food insecurity among working households being relatively low compared to those on, for example, COVID benefits or social assistance, working Canadians still represent over half of the food-insecure households in Canada. This is because the majority of Canadians get their income from working.

The main source of income for 51.9% of food-insecure households in 2021 was from employment whether employed or self-employed. 9.4% of the total number of households facing food insecurity were social assistance households. Only 0.9% of them were living on employment insurance and 2.5% on private pensions. 11.8% of all food-insecure households received their income from public pensions.

People Who Rent Are More Likely to be Food Insecure

In Canada, people who are renting are more likely to face food insecurities than those who own their homes either outright or with a mortgage. 25.9% of the households renting their home faced some level of food insecurity in 2021. In the same year, 7.2% of homeowners without a mortgage and 13.9% of homeowners with a mortgage were food insecure.

More Than One in Five Children Live in Food-Insecure Households

In 2021, 1.4 million children living in Canadian provinces lived in food-insecure households. That is one in five children. However, the total number of children facing food insecurity in Canada is far greater considering the high percentage of households living in food insecurity in the territories.

Households with a lone female parent are the most vulnerable. In 2021, 38% of these households faced food insecurities.

More Than Three in Ten Indigenous Households Live in Food-Insecure Households

There are racial disparities in food security in Canada. Canadians identifying as white are less likely to live in food-insecure households compared to people from any other ethnic group. The most likely people to live in a food-insecure household are Indigenous People at 30.7%. However, this percentage could be even higher because there is a lack of data for people living in First Nations reserves or in various remote communities in Northern Canada.

How Does Food Insecurity Affect Health And Healthcare?

People living in food-insecure households are more likely to have health issues arising from poor diet or inadequate quantities of food. Lack of food leads to an increased vulnerability to infectious diseases, injuries, and poor oral health. Lack of food is also linked to chronic conditions such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, and chronic pain. Adults in food-insecure households also have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with diabetes.

Since food insecurity is directly linked to income, many Canadians living in food poverty also have trouble affording their prescribed medications. Almost half of those living in households facing severe food insecurity say that they have reduced, delayed, or skipped their prescribed medication because they couldn’t afford it.

What is the Healthcare Cost of Food Insecurity in Canada?

Since people living in food-insecure households are more likely to have health problems, it is not surprising that the health costs incurred rise alongside the severity of food insecurity. Based on a study conducted by Proof in Ontario, the healthcare costs incurred by adults living in severe food poverty were $3,930 in twelve months.

During the same period, the costs incurred by adults living in moderate food insecurity were $2,806, marginal $2,161, and $1,605 for adults living in food-secure households.

What Can Be Done About Food Insecurity in Canada?

Household food insecurity in Canada could be reduced by policy interventions designed to improve the financial situations of households on the lowest end of the income spectrum. Policies, for example, child benefits, minimum wage, and social assistance have an impact on food security as they improve the financial circumstances of a household. For example, an increase of $1,000 in annual welfare can lower the risk of food insecurity by 5%.

However, many public policies do not adequately address the needs of low-income earners in Canada. More also needs to be done to address food insecurity in the most affected areas of the country and among Indigenous People.

While food banks provide support to households facing food insecurity in Canada, not many households are using them. For some, this could be because of their inaccessibility or because they are seen as the last resource. Neither do food banks address the underlying issues and causes of food insecurity in Canada.

Summary

Food insecurity in Canada is closely linked to household income after tax with people on lower incomes more likely to face food insecurity. The percentage of food-insecure households is the highest in the territories, with Nunavut having the most severe problem. Quebec has the lowest percentage of food-insecure households in Canada.

5.8 million Canadians are living in the provinces who live in food-insecure households, but the number for the whole of Canada is far greater. People identifying as white are the least likely to face food insecurities while over 30% of Indigenous People live in food-insecure households.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are 5.8 million Canadians living in food-insecure households in the provinces. However, the real figure is a lot higher because it does not include the territories or people living in First Nations reserves.

People living in the territories are more likely to live in food insecurity than those in provinces, with Nunavut being the most severely affected territory. People who live on social assistance, female-led single-parent households, and Indigenous people have a higher risk of facing food insecurities.

Within the provinces, there are 1.4 million children living in food-insecure households. However, the actual figure is likely to be a lot higher as the data doesn’t include children living in food insecure households in the territories.

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