Originally published in Healthy Debate on October 26, 2021.
By Tim Li
This article is based on interviews from PROOF’s special podcast presentation, “Why eliminating food insecurity requires dismantling anti-Black racism.” Listen below or visit here for the full presentation, transcript, and show notes.
We’ve known for a while that Black households in Canada are more likely to experience inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints, but little has been done to better understand this disparity.
Collaborating with FoodShare, a leading food justice organization, we recently completed the first focused study on the racial disparities in food insecurity in Canada.
“When it comes to food insecurity, I feel like we’re often footnotes,” says Paul Taylor, the executive director of Food Share, who was astounded that there had been no prior research to further understand the high rate of food insecurity among Black Canadians.
Statistics Canada has been systematically monitoring household food insecurity for more than 15 years using the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). Our latest national estimate from 2017-2018 is also the highest to date – more than 4.4 million Canadians live in a food-insecure household. A smaller survey of the provinces in the early days of the pandemic tells us that food insecurity has gotten substantially worse.
In our 2012 annual report, we documented the prevalence of food insecurity among Black Canadians, something that had not been done before. We’ve continued to see the disproportionate rates of food insecurity since, with 28.9 per cent of Black households living in food-insecure households in 2017-2018 compared to 11.1 per cent of white households.
Going beyond footnotes
Using pooled CCHS data from 2005 to 2014, our study goes beyond reporting the prevalence of food insecurity among Black households by analyzing how race relates to factors that lead to food insecurity. It also provides the first estimate of the proportion of children living in food-insecure households by race – more than one-third (36.6 per cent) of Black children lived in food-insecure households compared to 12.4 per cent of white children.
Food insecurity isn’t just about lacking food. It is an indicator of serious material deprivation. By the time households report not having enough money for food, they are also struggling to afford basic needs like housing and prescriptions. The financial circumstances that determine food security consist of income, its adequacy and security, and factors like assets and debts. Our study adds race into the equation.
Previous research has shown that food insecurity is tightly linked to low income, low education, renting, having children, being a lone parent and being on social assistance or Employment Insurance, all of which play important roles in the financial circumstances of a household.
However, that research only looked at aggregated data, meaning these factors weren’t analyzed separately for different racial groups. We re-examined these relationships through the lens of race to compare them between Black and white households.
For example, we compared the outcomes between Black and white households that relied on seniors’ income. Research has established that households relying on seniors’ income sources, such as public or private pensions, retirement savings, dividends, or interest, are much less likely to be food insecure than those relying on other sources like employment, social assistance or Employment Insurance. Seniors’ incomes often provide more adequate and stable incomes, reducing the risk for food insecurity.
This pattern remains true among Black households; those relying on seniors’ incomes were less likely to be food insecure than those relying on other incomes. However, we also saw they were twice as likely to be food insecure as their white counterparts. This may be because Black households are less able to build up assets before retirement due to precarious and low-paying jobs or other manifestations of racism in the labour market.
The financial circumstances that determine food security consist of income and factors like assets and debts. Our study adds race into the equation.
A new report by the Canadian Centres for Policy Alternatives finds that fewer Black seniors have private retirement savings (employer-sponsored RPPs and individual or group RRSPs); those who do have accumulated less because of smaller contributions during their working years.
Research also has repeatedly shown that homeowners are less likely to be food insecure than renters. Homeownership typically indicates greater wealth and can provide an asset to borrow against in times of unexpected financial difficulty. However, although Black homeowners are still less likely to be food insecure than Black renters, they are still twice as likely to be food insecure as white homeowners.
Previous research has shown that not all homeownership is the same when it comes to food insecurity. Homeowners with mortgages and those who own homes with low value are more vulnerable than other homeowners. Having to pay off a mortgage means less money left over for other basic needs like food; owning a home with little market value reflects lower income, fewer savings and potentially more precarious financial circumstances. These situations may be more common for Black homeowners because of systemic racism in the housing market and other institutions, making them less able to accumulate wealth.
Another relationship we see in aggregated data is lower odds of food insecurity for households living in Quebec compared to other provinces, which may reflect that province’s more progressive policies and stronger social safety net.
However, when we broke down the data, we found that it didn’t make a difference which province Black households lived in; the protection associated with living in Quebec did not apply to Black households like it did for their white counterparts. One possible explanation is that this social safety net is less accessible for Black households in Quebec.
“The research really challenges that kind of aggregate data that has existed for a while about this issue that many people could rattle off pretty quickly,” says Taylor. “It really highlights the need for disaggregated race-based data … but also making sure that there are action plans in place.”
The only interventions that have been shown to move the needle on food insecurity are those that increase low-income households’ financial resources. Policies supported by evidence include higher minimum wage, increased welfare rates, lower income tax for the lowest income households, and child benefits. There is also research to support a guaranteed annual income or basic income for tackling food insecurity.
Despite this evidence, we have yet to see policymakers evaluate or implement economic and social policies with food insecurity in mind.
“We often hear in the narrative around people who are considered poor or low income: ‘If they just got a better education; if they went to post-secondary school; if they had a full family, a mom and a dad in the household; if they just earned a little bit more money; if they weren’t immigrants, they wouldn’t be in this situation,’” says Melana Roberts, the Chair of Food Secure Canada. “(This research) combats that narrative that really stigmatizes low-income folks and Black communities.”
Even when other sociodemographic characteristics were kept the same, we found that Black households are still twice as likely to be food insecure as white households. Just being Black is enough to increase the risk of food insecurity.
“This research really highlights the need for disaggregated race-based data.”
All these findings point to anti-Black racism as the underlying reason for the disparity in food insecurity. More research into the economic disparities between Black and white Canadians is needed to better understand how racism manifests in our institutions and the kinds of policies needed to dismantle it.
“When it comes to tackling food insecurity, tackling anti-Black racism in our institutions has to be a really important part of that puzzle,” says Taylor. “We are so far behind when it comes to addressing this issue because we don’t even have a seat at the table and the questions that we need to have asked aren’t even being asked.”
Tim Li is the research program coordinator of PROOF, a research program studying effective policy interventions for food insecurity in Canada at the University of Toronto.