Household Food Insecurity in Canada

Household food insecurity is the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. It is a serious problem in Canada that negatively impacts physical, mental, and social health, and costs our healthcare system considerably.

1 in 8 households in Canada is food insecure1 in 8 households in Canada is food insecure, amounting to over 4 million Canadians, including 1.15 million children, living in homes that struggle to put food on the table.1

Household food insecurity in Canada is measured by Statistics Canada using the Household Food Security Survey Module (HFSSM) on the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). While the CCHS is conducted every year, the inclusion of the HFSSM on the survey has only been mandatory in 2007-2008 and 2011-2012. In other years, some provinces and territories opted not to monitor food insecurity.

From the national statistics, we see that the prevalence of food insecurity in Canada has increased significantly from 11.3% in 2007-2008 to 12.4% in 2011-2012.2

The HFSSM consists of 18 questions about the experiences of food insecurity, ranging from worrying about running out of food to going whole days without eating, due to financial constraint. Based on a household’s experience, food insecurity can be categorized into 3 categories:

Marginal food insecurity: Worry about running out of food and/or limited food selection due to a lack of money for food
Moderate food insecurity: Compromise in quality and/or quantity of food due to a lack of money for food.
Severe food insecurity: Miss meals, reduce food intake, and at the most extreme go day(s) without food.

Graph of food insecurity in Canada. Prevalence of food insecurity in Canada has increased significantly from 11.3% in 2007-2008 to 12.4% in 2011-2012.

Marginal food insecurity: Worry about running out of food and/or limited food selection due to a lack of money for food
Moderate food insecurity: Compromise in quality and/or quantity of food due to a lack of money for food.
Severe food insecurity: Miss meals, reduce food intake, and at the most extreme go day(s) without food.

In 2013 and 2014, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon chose not to measure food insecurity. However, it is clear from participating jurisdictions that high rates of food insecurity have persisted across Canada.3, 4

Map of Canada with prevalence of food insecurity in the jurisdictions that monitored in 2013-2014In 2013 and 2014, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon chose not to measure food insecurity. However, it is clear from participating jurisdictions that high rates of food insecurity have persisted across Canada.3, 4

Among the provinces and territories surveyed, there were no significant drops in food insecurity prevalence, and even indications of an upward trend in the already vulnerable North. In both Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the prevalence of household food insecurity rose to the highest levels observed since monitoring began.

In 2015 and 2016, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Yukon chose not to measure food insecurity. A new national estimate of the prevalence of food insecurity will not be available until the 2017 data becomes available. The lack of comprehensive, up-to-date statistics is detrimental to efforts to make evidence-based decisions on this problem.

Did you know?

Icon: 1 in 6 Canadian children under the age of 18 lives in households affected by household food insecurity1 in 6 Canadian children under the age of 18 is affected by household food insecurity. Households with children led by female lone parents are especially vulnerable to food insecurity; one-third of these households are food-insecure.1

Icon: Household food insecurity is especially concerning in NunavutHousehold food insecurity is especially concerning in Nunavut, where almost half the households are food-insecure. With 46.8% of households in the territory being food-insecure, it has the highest prevalence of food insecurity of all the provinces and territories. Over 60% of the children in Nunavut live in food-insecure households.4

Icon: Food insecurity and rentingRenters make up two-thirds of the food-insecure households in Canada. 1 in 4 households that rent their accommodations is food-insecure. Owning a home provides protection against food insecurity as home owners have a considerable asset that can be used to leverage funds when there is a need, such as job loss, sudden illness and other income shocks.1

Icon: Food insecurity among households consisting of unattached individualsAlmost half of the food-insecure households in Canada consist of unattached individuals, living alone or with others.1.


Graph of food insecurity in Canada, by household type


Icon: Food insecurity and working as main source of incomeOver 60%, of food-insecure households are relying on wages and salaries as their main source of income. Simply having a job is not enough; low-waged jobs and precarious work means people in the workforce often don’t have enough income to be food-secure.1


Graph of food insecurity in Canada, by main source of income


Icon: Seniors' incomeHouseholds with seniors’ incomes as their primary source of income are much less likely to be food insecure, reflecting the protection afforded to seniors through Canada’s pension programs.1

Icon: Employment insurance and workers' compensationEmployment Insurance and workers’ compensation, social programs for those in the workforce, do not protect households from food insecurity. 38% of households reliant on these programs are food-insecure.1

Icon: Social assistanceMost (70%) households reliant on social assistance in Canada are food-insecure; almost a third (29.4%) are severely food-insecure.1 Local food costing tells the same story – social assistance rates are too low to enable recipients to meet their basic needs.5, 6, 7

Graph of food insecurity by main source of income

Food insecurity takes a tremendous toll on people’s health and the healthcare system.


Food insecurity may prevent individuals from maintaining good health by affecting the quality and quantity of their food intake. Adults and adolescents in food-insecure households in Canada are more likely to experience nutrient inadequacies and have poorer diets, with lower intakes of milk products, fruits, and vegetables compared to people who are food secure.8 However, the impact of food insecurity on health extends beyond diet and nutrition.

Food insecurity leaves an indelible mark on children’s wellbeing. Experiencing food insecurity at an early age is associated with childhood mental health problems, such as hyperactivity and inattention.9 Experiences of hunger in childhood increase the risk of developing asthma, depression, and suicidal ideation in adolescence and early adulthood.10, 11, 12

Adults living in food-insecure households report poorer physical health and are more vulnerable to a wide range of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, and back problems.13, 14, 15 They are also more likely to be diagnosed with multiple chronic conditions.16 There is a particularly strong relationship between food insecurity and poor mental health.17, 18 The risk of experiencing depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts increases with the severity of food insecurity.19

Graph of prevalence of mental health outcomes across levels of food insecurity, demonstrating that risk of experiencing depression, anxiety disorder, mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts increases with the severity of food insecurity
(Jessiman-Perreault & McIntyre, 2015)19

Food insecurity also makes it difficult for individuals to manage existing chronic health problems, such as diabetes and HIV, and it can lead to worsening conditions.20, 21, 22 Food insecure individuals may struggle to adhere to therapeutic diets or forego necessary medication because of the expense.

The health consequences of food insecurity are a large burden on our healthcare system.23, 24 Healthcare costs are considerably greater for food insecure households, rising in a step-wise fashion with more severe food insecurity.23

Graph of healthcare costs associated with food insecurity
(Tarasuk, Cheng, de Oliveira, Dachner, Gundersen & Kurdyak, 2015)23

Even after adjusting for other well-established social determinants of health, such as education and income levels, the healthcare costs incurred by a severely food insecure adult in Ontario are more than double that of a food secure adult.23 These findings imply that addressing food insecurity would drastically reduce the associated health care costs and improve overall health.

What drives household food insecurity in Canada?


Household food insecurity in Canada is tightly linked to income. As a household’s income declines, the risk of food insecurity increases. However, it is not a perfect one-to-one relationship. Food insecurity reflects a household’s broader material circumstance, taking into account income, assets like property, and other resources a household could draw upon.

Severe food insecurity is very sensitive to income. Households with very low incomes are at much higher risk of being severely food insecure.

Graph of the relationship between percent severely food insecure and before tax household income (adjusted for household size)Severe food insecurity is very sensitive to income. Households with very low incomes are at much higher risk of being severely food insecure.

It is critical to address this high risk, given the greater negative health impact and healthcare costs associated with severe food insecurity. Modest changes to income can have a considerable impact on their risk of food insecurity.

On the other hand, there is no indication that increasing food skills or budgeting skills will reduce food insecurity. An analysis of national survey data from Statistics Canada found that adults in food-insecure households report having food preparation and cooking skills comparable to those in food-secure households.25

In fact, most Canadians consider themselves skilled at food preparation and very few Canadians (2%) report not knowing where to start when it comes to cooking, regardless of food insecurity status. This research also found that food preparation and cooking skills were not associated with food insecurity – adults that were more proficient in these skills were not any more likely to be food secure.25

Graph of self-rated cooking ability by household food insecurity status
(Huisken, Orr & Tarasuk, 2016)25

Adults in food-insecure households are 4 times more likely to report using a budget when shopping for food, but do not differ in terms of other shopping behaviours, like using a written grocery list, planning meals before shopping, or using Canada’s Food Guide.25

Although adults in food-insecure households are less likely to garden for food, there is also no indication that gardening for food protects households from food insecurity. Adults that gardened were as likely to be food-insecure as those that didn’t.25 This research suggests that interventions like programs aimed to improve food and budgeting skills or community gardens are unlikely to impact food insecurity rates in Canada.

Research has shown that food insecurity can be reduced through public policies that improve the financial circumstances of low-income households.


Households with senior’s pensions as the main source of income have considerably lower rates of food insecurity than households reliant on other sources of income, reflecting the protection afforded to seniors through Canada’s pension programs (i.e. Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement, and Canada Pension Plan/Quebec Pension Plan). An examination of food insecurity among unattached, low income (<$20,000 per year) adults found that their risk of being food insecure is reduced by half once they reach the age of 65 and become eligible for seniors' entitlements. Although the income provided through these pensions is still low, it is reliable and well above the amount these individuals would've received through social assistance.26

Another public program that was shown to have a positive impact on household food insecurity is the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), a federal income supplement program that provided support to households with young children.27 The UCCB provided households with $100 monthly for each child under 6 years old, regardless of income or any other factor. Researchers found that the introduction of this benefit in 2006 reduced food insecurity among eligible households and this reduction was especially great for low-income households and households led by single parents. The UCCB has since been replaced by the Canada Child Benefit, and it remains to be seen what effect this new benefit will have.

Social assistance programs vary among provinces and territories, but being on social assistance anywhere in Canada poses an extremely high risk of food insecurity. While food insecurity rates among households reliant on these programs fluctuate from year to year within jurisdictions, they have been persistently high.3, 4 The poverty reduction strategy introduced by Newfoundland and Labrador in 2006 demonstrates how improving the benefits received through social assistance can have a substantial impact on food insecurity among recipients.28

Graph of food insecurity among households reliant on social assistance as main source of income in 2011/2012 and 2013/2014

Between 2007 and 2012, the prevalence of food insecurity among social assistance recipients in Newfoundland and Labrador decreased by almost half. This strategy aimed to tackle the province’s depth of poverty and included interventions that improved benefits for social assistance recipients, improving their financial circumstances enough to bring many of them out of food insecurity.28

Graph of food insecurity among households receiving any income from social assistance in Newfoundland and Labrador between 2007-2012
(Loopstra, Dachner & Tarasuk, 2015)28

Between 2007 and 2012, the prevalence of food insecurity among social assistance recipients in Newfoundland and Labrador decreased by almost half. This strategy aimed to tackle the province’s depth of poverty and included interventions that improved benefits for social assistance recipients, improving their financial circumstances enough to bring many of them out of food insecurity.28

Unfortunately, Newfoundland and Labrador elected not to measure household food insecurity on the CCHS in the two survey cycles after 2012. The province ended the indexation of income support rates to inflation in 2012, but there is no way of knowing what has happened to the prevalence since then.

None of the policies described here were explicitly designed to address household food insecurity, but they had substantial impact on this problem because they improved incomes for very low-income households. These are the households that are most likely to be severely food insecure, the most toxic state of food insecurity for health and wellbeing. The results here show that when food insecure households receive additional income, they spend it in ways that improves their food security. Interventions that provide a modest increase to income can go a long way in addressing food insecurity in Canada.

Policy action is needed to tackle this serious public health issue.


Through research examining transcripts of provincial and federal parliamentary discussions, also known as Hansard records, it is clear that Canada’s elected officials recognize that food insecurity is rooted in inadequate income.29 However, the legislation that they have passed related to the problem has narrowly focused on food charity.30 For example, there are now Good Samaritan acts absolving donors of liability for the safety of donated food in every province and territory.31 Yet, research has shown that most food insecure households do not use food banks and there is no evidence that food charity is able to move households out of food insecurity.32

Bar graph of food bank use in March vs food insecurity prevalence for years 2007, 2008, 2011 & 2012, demonstrating the much greater number of food insecure households than food bank users

Civil society groups are doing their best to help those struggling with food insecurity in their communities. However, there is wide consensus that the government needs to take action on food insecurity through income-based interventions. Organizations like Food Banks Canada, Ontario Association of Food Banks, Community Food Centres of Canada, Food Secure Canada, Dietitians of Canada, Ontario Dietitians in Public Health, and many more are all calling for policies that address the root of food insecurity. The upcoming federal poverty reduction strategy and national food policy could be promising steps forward, but it is imperative that they make the reduction of household food insecurity an explicit target.


References
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2. Unpublished analysis of 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 Canadian Community Health Survey data.
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4. Tarasuk V, Mitchell A, Dachner N. Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2014. Toronto ON: Research to Identify Policy Options to Reduce Food Insecurity (PROOF); 2016. [Free full report]
5. Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. Household Food Insecurity. Simcoe Muskoka Health Stats. Retrieved from: http://www.simcoemuskokahealthstats.org/topics/determinants-of-health/socioeconomic-characteristics/household-food-insecurity. Accessed: December 18, 2017
6. Alberta Health Servuces. The Affordability of Eating Healthy in Alberta 2015. Alberta Health Services; 2017. [Free full report]
7. Voices for Food Security in Nova Scotia. Can Nova Scotians afford to eat healthy? Report on 2015 participatory food costing. Halifax, NS: Food Action Research Centre (FoodARC); 2017. [Free full report]
8. Kirkpatrick S, Tarasuk V. Food insecurity is associated with nutrient inadequacies among Canadian adults and adolescents. J Nutr. 2008;138:604-12. [Free Full Text]
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24. Fitzpatrick T, Rosella L, Calzavara A, Petch J, Pinto A, Manson H, et al. Looking beyond income and education: socioeconomic status gradients among future high-cost users of health care. Am J Prev Med. 2015;49(2):161-71.[Free full text]
25. Huisken A, Orr S, Tarasuk V. Adults’ food skills and use of gardens are not associated with household food insecurity in Canada. Can J Public Health. 2016;107(6):e526–e32. [Free full text]
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31. Food Banks Canada. Link and Resources (Good Samaritans Acts). Retrieved from https://www.foodbankscanada.ca/Hunger-in-Canada/Links-and-resources.aspx. Accessed: December 18, 2017
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Updated: February 22, 2018


Food Insecurity Fact Sheets

Click to see full fact sheet.

Fact Sheet: Monitoring Food Insecurity in Canada
Fact Sheet: Children in Food Insecure Households
Fact Sheet: The Impact of Food Insecurity on Health
Fact Sheet: Public Policy and Food Insecurity
Fact Sheet: Food Procurement, Food Skills & Food Insecurity
Fact Sheet: Food Insecurity and Social Assistance
Fact Sheet: Food Insecurity and Mental Health
Fact Sheet: Spending Patterns of Food Insecure Households