A basic income, not expanded food charity, is critical as the pandemic plunges more Canadians into deprivation.
Today, PROOF, an interdisciplinary research program investigating household food insecurity in Canada, provides a long-awaited look into the current state of food insecurity in this country.
Drawing on data for 103,500 households from Statistics Canada’s 2017-18 Canadian Community Health Survey, we found that 1 in 8 households were food insecure. This represents 4.4 million people, the largest number recorded since Canada began monitoring food insecurity. And this number is an underestimate. The survey sample does not include people living on First Nations reserves, people in some remote northern areas, or people who are homeless – i.e., three groups at high risk of food insecurity.
What is food insecurity?
Household food insecurity refers to the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. The experiences assessed to determine a household’s ‘food security status’ range from concerns about running out of food before there is more money to buy more, to the inability to afford a balanced diet, to going hungry, missing meals, and in extreme cases, not eating for whole days because of a lack of food and money for food.
Taken at face value, these questions suggest that food insecurity is a food problem – resolvable by programs that provide food for free or make it more accessible and affordable. But this misses the bigger picture. The deprivation experienced by food-insecure households is not limited to food. By the time people are struggling to put food on the table because of a lack of money, they are having trouble meeting all kinds of other expenses. Food-insecure households compromise spending on all kinds of necessities, including housing and prescription medications.
Who is food insecure?
Those most at risk are households with low incomes and limited assets (indicated on this survey by renting rather than owning your housing). Indigenous and Black households are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity, a finding reflective of the potent effects of colonialism and structural racism in Canada.
About 60% of households who report their main source of income as social assistance were food insecure. While not new, the finding is a stark reminder of the inadequacy of our ‘income support program of last resort’. Many of those who manage to qualify for income assistance cannot meet their basic needs. Almost one-third of those households reliant on Employment Insurance (EI) or Workers’ Compensation were also food-insecure, raising questions about the adequacy of these supports.
While the risk of food insecurity is greatest for households reliant on social assistance, EI or Workers’ Compensation, it is important to note that two-thirds of the households reported their main source of income as salaries or wages. Food insecurity is a serious problem for working Canadians.
Food-insecure households’ main source of income
Although 84% of people affected by food insecurity live in either Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, or British Columbia, there are clear geographic disparities in food insecurity rates. Food insecurity is much more prevalent in Nunavut than any other part of Canada. 57% of households in Nunavut reported some level of food insecurity and almost half of these households were severely food insecure (meaning that members experienced absolute food deprivation). The lowest prevalence of household food insecurity was 11% in Quebec. In fact, Quebec was the only place in Canada where the prevalence of food insecurity fell significantly between 2015-16 and 2017-18.
Household Food Insecurity by Province and Territory
Data source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), 2017-18.
Food insecurity is more common among households with children than those without. 17% of children under 18, or more than 1 in 6, lived in a family that experienced food insecurity. Across Canada, this rate ranged from a low of 15% in British Columbia to a high of 79% in Nunavut. The families most at risk were those headed by lone-parent women; one-third were food-insecure.
Food insecurity is a health problem.
It matters that 1 in 8 Canadian households were food-insecure in 2017-18 because such deprivation has profound negative effects on people’s health. The research on the relationship between food insecurity and health is unequivocal. Among children, exposure to severe food insecurity has been linked to the subsequent development of a variety of chronic health conditions, including asthma and depression. Adults in food-insecure households have higher rates of a wide variety of chronic diseases, including mental health problems, arthritis, asthma, and diabetes. They are also more likely to die prematurely. By our best estimate, adults in severely food-insecure households in Canada die 9 years sooner than the rest of us.
Because of its toxic effects on health, household food insecurity also places a substantial burden on our health care system.
How can we solve this problem?
We must address its root causes – food programs are not the solution.
The persistently high prevalence of household food insecurity across Canada highlights the need for more effective, evidence-based responses. To date, there have been lots of federal, provincial, territorial, and local initiatives to support community food programs, including the federal government’s Local Food Infrastructure Fund launched last year. But food programs can’t fix the problem of household food insecurity that has been documented in this report.
Governments must re-evaluate the adequacy of income supports and protections for low-income Canadians.
Tackling the conditions that give rise to food insecurity means re-evaluating the adequacy of the income supports and protections that are currently provided to very low-income, working-aged Canadians and their families. For example, our recent study of the Canada Child Benefit suggests that this new federal benefit reduced severe food insecurity among low-income families with children, but it did not make them food-secure. The high rate of food insecurity among families with children points to a need to review the benefit amounts for low-income families (i.e., those most vulnerable to food insecurity) to ensure that they are adequately supported to meet basic needs. Other federal programs like the Canada Workers Benefit also need to be reviewed to ensure that they are as effective as they can be in protecting low-income Canadians from food insecurity.
Governments must design programs and policies in ways that ensure that vulnerable, low-income households have sufficient funds to make ends meet.
While federal leadership is imperative, provincial and territorial governments’ engagement in policies to reduce food insecurity is also critical. Given that the provinces and territories are responsible for health care, they bear the costs of food insecurity insofar as it increases people’s needs for health services. There are clear differences in food insecurity prevalence across the provinces and territories and within some jurisdictions (notably Quebec) over time. The effects of specific provincial/territorial policies on food insecurity rates warrant much more evaluation. What is known suggests that provincial and territorial government actions matter. Many important policy levers rest with the provinces and territories. They are responsible for social assistance, they set minimum wages and employment standards, they deliver social housing programs, they levy taxes and deliver tax credits, and many provide child benefits.
It’s time to recognize food insecurity is a serious public health problem in Canada, a problem that is only getting worse. Without deliberate, evidence-based policy interventions by federal, provincial and territorial governments, this problem will continue to fester.
Studies have repeatedly found a strong, independent relationship between owning a home and lower vulnerability to food insecurity in Canada and elsewhere, but the reasons for this relationship are poorly understood. This aimed to examine the influence of housing asset, housing debt and housing expenditure on the relationship between homeownership status and food insecurity in Canada through examining cross-sectional data on food insecurity, housing tenure and expenditures, home value, income and sociodemographic characteristics derived from the 2010 Survey of Household Spending. Food insecurity prevalence was highest among market renters, followed by homeowners with a mortgage and mortgage-free homeowners. Substantial disparities in food insecurity exist between households with different homeownership status and housing asset level. Housing policies that support homeownership while ensuring affordable mortgages may be important to mitigate food insecurity, but policy actions are required to address renters’ high vulnerability to food insecurity.
Research drawing on a population-based sample of Canadian adults showed that those living in food-insecure households were more likely to die prematurely than their food-secure counterparts across all causes of death. Among adults who died prematurely, those experiencing severe food insecurity died nine years earlier than their food-secure counterparts. There is a graded positive association between household food insecurity status and hazard of premature mortality. This research shows that the markedly higher mortality hazard of severe food insecurity highlights the importance of policy interventions that protect households from extreme deprivation.
The rate of severe food insecurity dropped by one-third among low-income families after the introduction of the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) in 2016, researchers from the University of Toronto have found.
The study is the first to look at the CCB’s impact on food insecurity, defined as the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraint.
“Our study results are yet another piece of evidence that improving household incomes reduces food insecurity,” says Valerie Tarasuk, a researcher at U of T’s Joannah & Brian Lawson Centre for Child Nutrition and the senior author on the study.
“If you give poor families more money, they spend it on basic necessities like food – and the more desperate they are, the more likely they are to do this.”
The journal Preventive Medicine published the results, which also reveal that while the benefit disproportionately affected low-income families, it did little to eradicate food insecurity altogether.
The muted effect is not surprising, the researchers say.
“I think the impact on family food insecurity was limited because the benefit was not designed with this outcome in mind,” says Tarasuk, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences in the Faculty of Medicine who is cross-appointed to the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “To have a stronger impact on food insecurity, the government would need to put more money in the hands of the lowest-income families, which would be completely consistent with the intent of their federal poverty reduction strategy.”
On March 6 2019, The Walrus magazine published the article How Do You Save Four Million Canadians From Hunger?, relying on PROOF research to breakdown the problem of food insecurity in Canada. PROOF Principal Investigator, Valerie Tarasuk,is quoted and the article goes on to argue that fixing the food insecurity crisis requires thinking of food as a human right.
The inclusion of the Household Food Security Survey Module (HFSSM) on the annual cycles of Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) has enabled the monitoring of food insecurity in Canada. However, the HFSSM is not always mandatory. We recently learned that the measurement of food insecurity on the CCHS was optional in 2015 and 2016, and Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Yukon opted out. As a result, it is not possible to accurately estimate the prevalence of household food insecurity nationally for those years. The most recent national estimate available is from 2012 when the HFSSM was mandatory for all jurisdictions. We know that food insecurity rose significantly between 2007 and 2012, but cannot reliably determine whether the problem has gotten better or worse since then. The next national assessment of food insecurity will be in 2017. This gap in data impedes research on trends in food insecurity and the impact of public policies on the problem. It is critical that provinces and territories participate in all cycles of measurement.
Ontario is the most populous jurisdiction in Canada and home to the single largest number of food insecure households. Ontario’s decision to opt out of measurement has serious consequences for analyses of trends in food insecurity, limiting our ability to see the impact of policy changes over this period. The lack of data for 2015 and 2016 also has ramifications for the assessment of the recently announced Ontario Food Security Strategy and Ontario Basic Income Pilot. Until now, Ontario has participated in monitoring in every cycle since the inclusion of the module on the CCHS in 2005.
Newfoundland and Labrador
In addition to opting out of measurement in 2015 and 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador opted out in 2013 and 2014, meaning there are no data for this province beyond 2012. A substantial decrease in food insecurity among social assistance recipients in Newfoundland and Labrador was observed between 2007 and 2012, following the rollout of their poverty reduction strategy in 2006. However, due to the lack of data it is not possible to examine the impact of subsequent policy changes.
Yukon is the only territory to have ever opted out of food insecurity monitoring on the CCHS, having previously opted out in 2005, 2013, and 2014. From the most recent estimates from 2012, 17.1% of households in Yukon are food insecure and 1 in 5 children are affected. But, we have no way of knowing whether this problem has gotten better or worse since then.
Regular monitoring of household food insecurity is fundamental to population research and evidence-based policy decision making in Canada. The lack of comprehensive, up-to-date statistics is detrimental to efforts to address this serious public health problem. Food insecurity measurement needs to become mandatory annually in all provinces and territories.
PROOF has recently published a new study in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, looking at the extent that food skills and garden use relate to household food insecurity in Canada. This new PROOF factsheet summarizes some of the findings from this study.
Listen to PROOF Principal Investigator, Valerie Tarasuk, discuss the findings and importance of this research.(5 minutes) [Download MP3]
For more information about this research, please see: Huisken, A., Orr, S. K., & Tarasuk, V. (2017). Adults’ food skills and use of gardens are not associated with household food insecurity in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 107(6), e526-e532. [Abstract]
To see our other factsheets on food insecurity in Canada, visit https://proof.utoronto.ca/resources/fact-sheets.
This article was originally published in the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine News and the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health News November 16, 2016.
By: Jim Oldfield, Writer, Office of Communications, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
Ontario plans to roll out a pilot project on guaranteed annual income early next year. The goal of the project, according a recent report by former senator and current master of Massey College Hugh Segal, is to test whether a basic income can produce better outcomes for recipients and lower costs for government than the province’s current mix of social programs.
Two of the pilot’s key measures will be health and health care costs, and Segal’s report ties both to the growing problem of food insecurity, among other factors. Professor Valerie Tarasuk was one of many experts Segal consulted for his report. She is a professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the Department of Nutritional Sciences, and she has studied food insecurity for over 20 years.
Ahead of this week’s food insecurity conference at U of T, Tarasuk spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Jim Oldfield about Segal’s report, the devastating effects of food insecurity and how quickly a guaranteed income can make a difference for people who need it.
What was your reaction when you read Segal’s report?
One of the really wonderful things about Hugh’s report is that it names food insecurity as an outcome to look at. That’s fantastic, because research by us and others shows that low income means a greater probability of food insecurity. Moreover, the more extreme the food insecurity, the more toxic it is for health. So by the time a person is living with severe food insecurity they’re burning up well over double the health care dollars of the rest of us. Food security is absolutely intertwined with income, and both are very tightly tied to health care spending. There are four million people in this country living with some form of food insecurity; it’s a major public health problem, so I’m very glad it gets attention in this report.
How does food insecurity affect health?
Well, it’s devastating for mental health and physical health, and that’s true across the life cycle. Adults with chronic diseases like diabetes or HIV are less able to manage their conditions. They’re more prone to complications and negative outcomes, and they have higher mortality rates. Household food insecurity affects one in six Canadian children, and as result they are at much higher risk for asthma, depression and other diseases. Although we’ve only monitored food insecurity systematically in Canada for 10 years, it’s been a persistent problem much longer than that. The encouraging thing is that a lot of good evidence shows it doesn’t need to be that way.
So what would a basic income do for food insecurity?
A basic income won’t let people fall below a certain income level, and it very effectively limits food insecurity. The connection on that is very strong. Studies have also shown that improving incomes produces very definite changes in food security over a short period of time. In Newfoundland and Labrador, food insecurity among social assistance recipients dropped by almost half over five years, starting within a year of increases to income supports. Our group PROOF recently found that food insecurity went from 40 to 16 per cent among low-income adults who became eligible for old-age security at 65. So a secure and decent income can largely cut off food insecurity — and to a degree that increases in minimum wage, subsidized housing or small increases to welfare payments don’t do.
What are the arguments against basic income?
There are two big criticisms of basic income. One is that we can’t afford it, and the other is that it creates a disincentive to work. Yes, it will cost money, but it’s important for Ontarians to get their heads around the trade-offs. Given the effects of food insecurity on health, I think we can’t afford not to do it. That said, we need more data on exactly how a basic income can reduce health-care and administrative social assistance costs, whether it limits encounters with the justice system and how it affects kids’ performance in school, among other things. Hopefully the pilot will answer some of those questions. As for the disincentive to work, that’s debatable. But it’s important to know that over half of families living with food insecurity in Ontario have jobs — the problem is with the quality and security of their employment and income. We have an opportunity in Ontario to make an important choice on the issue of basic income, and I hope the debate on it over the next few weeks reflects a true understanding of its costs and benefits.