Food bank stats don’t tell the story of food insecurity

This article on the need to shift away from food bank statistics for discussing food insecurity was written for Upstream‘s series focused on food insecurity in Canada. Read their introductory article on this serious public health issue and see the rest of the articles in the series.


‘Food insecurity’ refers to the inadequate access to food because of financial constraints — and it’s a larger problem in Canada than most realize.

Since 1997 Food Banks Canada has released annual reports called ‘Hunger Count’ documenting the food bank usage. These reports have received wide media attention and are now a common point of reference when we discuss Canadian food insecurity, but they barely scratch the surface of the problem.

Food bank stats significantly understate the prevalence of food insecurity. We know this because Statistics Canada has been monitoring the problem nationally for almost a decade through the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). With its rigorous methods and large sample size this survey provides reliable health data at the provincial, territorial and national levels. It reveals more than four million Canadians were food insecure in 2012 — the most recent national estimate we have.

Food Banks Canada surveys its members every March to estimate use. In 2012 they estimated that only 882,188 people used food banks that month. The stark difference between the results of the CCHS and Food Banks Canada shows there’s a much larger problem than we’ve understood. Food insecurity in Canada is a national crisis.
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

Food bank stats also fail to capture changes in food insecurity over time. While the Hunger Count report draws attention to annual differences in food bank use in each province, food bank use actually appears relatively stable over time in comparison to the trends in food insecurity revealed by population stats. From 2007 to 2011 for example, we saw a steady decline in food insecurity in Newfoundland and Labrador, and a steady increase in Nova Scotia. But neither trend could be seen in food bank statistics.

“Many felt visiting a food bank wasn’t something a ‘person like them’ they should be doing.”

Our research group’s study on low income families in Toronto found almost all of those surveyed experienced food insecurity, yet only 23 percent actually used food banks. When we asked ‘why?’ it became clear there was a disconnect between how families thought about their actual needs, and what services the food banks were offering.

Many felt visiting a food bank wasn’t something a ‘person like them’ they should be doing, or something that could help them out of their situation. By the time families are food insecure they face much more than a lack of food. They are likely behind on bill payments, rent and other basic necessities. If they are also dealing with chronic illness, they may be foregoing critical expenses like medication too.

Turning to a food bank for help was an act of desperation. But even with this assistance, most families remained food insecure. This finding is consistent with other research in Canada — showing it takes substantial improvements to a household’s financial circumstances, to shift them out of food insecurity.

Food bank stats are a poor barometer of food insecurity because they don’t describe the size of the problem or how it’s changing over time. On the other hand the CCHS allows us to accurately measure the extent of food insecurity and systemically investigate its causes and consequences. Since we began monitoring, we’ve learned food insecurity is a serious public health issue that impacts physical, mental and social health — and healthcare costs, too.

“Even with this assistance, most families remained food insecure.”

We also have a growing body of evidence showing the prevalence of food insecurity is responsive to changes in social policies. Yet there have been no public policies introduced so far, with the explicit goal of reducing food insecurity. We must shift the conversation from food banks toward insights from population stats, and upstream approaches to address food insecurity in Canada.

5 Things Canadians Need to Know About Food Insecurity

Here are 5 things you should know about food insecurity in Canada.

This article was written by Dr.Tarasuk and Carolyn Shimmin, a knowledge translation coordinator with EvidenceNetwork.ca, and has appeared in The Globe and MailHuffington Post, Policy OptionsOttawa Life, The Hill TimesThe Province, The Battlefords News-OptimistTroy Media, and NetNewsLedger.


Over 4 million Canadians, including 1.15 million children experience some level of food insecurity. For many Canadians, food plays a central role in the holiday festivities. But for those experiencing food insecurity, a bountiful feast will not be in the cards this year. Over four million Canadians, including 1.15 million children experience some level of food insecurity.

Food insecurity, also known as ‘food poverty,’ can cause significant anxiety over diminishing household food supplies and result in individuals modifying their eating patterns — adults skipping meals so children can eat or sacrificing quality food choices for cheaper, less healthy options, for example. Food insecurity also often results in physical hunger pangs, fatigue and lack of concentration and productivity at school, work or play.

Then there are the social impacts of food insecurity that most of us wouldn’t consider, such as not being able to invite friends and family to dinner or being unable to afford to meet people for coffee. Food poverty can also create stress and conflict in family relationships and meals are often not a happy gathering opportunity.

Here are five things Canadians need to know about food insecurity:

1. Food insecurity significantly affects health

Evidence shows that among children, food insecurity is associated with poorer physical and mental health outcomes, including the development of a variety of long-term chronic health conditions such as asthma and depression.

For adults, research shows that food insecurity is independently associated with increased nutritional vulnerability, poor self-rated health, poor mental, physical and oral health and multiple chronic health conditions including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, depression, epilepsy and fibromyalgia. Studies also show that food insecurity impacts a person’s ability to provide self-care and manage chronic health conditions.

Evidence also shows the health impact of food insecurity exists on a gradient – meaning adults in more severely food-insecure households are more likely to report chronic health conditions as well as receive diagnoses of multiple health conditions.

2. Household food insecurity is a strong predictor of healthcare utilization and costs

A study in Ontario found that among adults, total healthcare costs — including inpatient hospital care, emergency department visits, physician services, same-day surgeries and home care services — increase significantly with the level of household food insecurity.

In other words, food insecurity costs us all through increased healthcare use. Compared with adults in food-secure households, annual healthcare costs were, on average 16 per cent (or $235) higher for adults in households with marginal food insecurity, 32 per cent (or $455) higher among those with moderate food insecurity and 76 per cent (or $1092) higher among those with severe food insecurity.

3. Food bank use is a poor indicator of food insecurity

Food Banks Canada recently estimated food bank use for a twelve month period at 1.7 million people, yet the number of food insecure individuals living in Canada is more than double this estimate. The main reason for this discrepancy is that most people struggling to afford the food they need do not turn to charities for help. The evidence suggests that using food banks is a last resort. Because food banks rely on donated food, both the amount and type of food available for distribution is limited, and agencies are unable to provide for everyone in need.

4. An adequate and secure level of household income is strongly linked to food security

It is perhaps surprising, but households reliant on wages and salaries make up the majority of food insecure households in Canada at 62 per cent. Households whose main source of income was either pensions or dividends and interest had the lowest rate of food insecurity in 2012 at seven per cent — compared to 11 per cent for people in the workforce and 70 per cent for people on social assistance (i.e., welfare and disability support programs). Researchers suggest the low rate of food insecurity among Canadian seniors reflects the protective effects of our public pension system.

5. Relatively modest increases in income have been found to lessen food insecurity among low-income families

Studies have shown that improved incomes and changes in employment can reduce food insecurity. An example of this can be found in Newfoundland and Labrador where evidence shows that from 2007 to 2012 the rate of food insecurity among households living on social assistance in this province fell from a staggering 60 per cent to 34 per cent. During this time period, the Newfoundland government made several changes to improve the circumstances of people living on social assistance, including increasing benefit levels and indexing them to inflation (until 2012).

Let’s not let another year go by without addressing food insecurity in Canada. In a country as rich as ours, there’s no reason anyone should go hungry.

New Publication: Changes in household food insecurity rates in Canadian metropolitan areas from 2007 to 2012

Changes in household food insecurity rates in Canadian metropolitan areas from 2007 to 2012
Sriram, U., & Tarasuk, V. (2015).
Can J Public Health,106(5), e322-e327.
[Abstract] [Full Text]

This study investigated the prevalence of household food insecurity in census metropolitan areas and the effect of various local economic factors on changes in these rates. Examining data from the 2007-2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, the researchers found peak unemployment rates to be associated with the prevalence of food insecurity. These results ​support a growing literature that identifies employment conditions as central problem​s​ ​of food insecurity ​and suggest that policy initiatives to improve these conditions ​could reduce food insecurity.

New Publications: Food bank usage is a poor indicator of food insecurity and Canada-US comparison of food insecurity and nutrient intakes

Food Bank Usage Is a Poor Indicator of Food Insecurity: Insights from Canada
Loopstra R, Tarasuk V.
Social Policy and Society 2015; 14(3): 443-455
[Abstract]

Household Food Insecurity Is a Stronger Marker of Adequacy of Nutrient Intakes among Canadian Compared to American Youth and Adults
Kirkpatrick SI, Dodd KW, Parsons R, Ng C, Garriguet D, Tarasuk V.
Journal of Nutrition 2015 May 20. pii: jn208579. [Epub ahead of print]
[Abstract]

New Publications: Policy analysis of Canada’s response to the World Food Summit, Food bank operations in Canadian cities and Income-supplementation on food insecurity

A frame-critical policy analysis of Canada’s response to the World Food Summit 1998-2008
Mah CL, Hamill C, Rondeau K, McIntyre L.
Archives of Public Health 2014; 72(41)
[Free Full Text]

A survey of food bank operations in five Canadian cities
Tarasuk V, Dachner N, Hamelin AM, Ostry A, Williams P, Bosckei E, Poland B, Raine K.
BMC Public Health 2014, 14:1234
[Free Full Text]

A difference-in-differences approach to estimate the effect of income-supplementation on food insecurity
Ionescu-Ittu R, Glymour MM, Kaufman JS.
Prev Med. 2015; 70:108-16
[Abstract]

New publication making the case for a guaranteed annual income in Canada to reduce food insecurity and improve health

A Solution for Poverty
The School of Public Policy, University of Calgary
Lynn McIntyre outlines the findings of a report that examines whether offering guaranteed income to more… [Video]

How a guaranteed annual income could put food banks out of business
Emerya JCH, Fleisch VC, McIntyre L.
SPP Research Papers 2013; 6(37):1-20.
[Free Full Text]

New poverty reduction strategy calls for guaranteed income for more than just seniors
The School of Public Policy, University of Calgary
[Press Release]