In episode 7 of the Healthy Cities in the SDG Era podcast, Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, spoke with host Dr. Erica Di Ruggiero about food insecurity in Canada in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a set of 17 goals tackling social, economic, and environmental challenges for UN Member States to deliver on by 2030. Sustainable Development Goal 2 is Zero Hunger, meaning Canada has committed to ending hunger and ensuring all Canadians have access to food. Later in the episode, Dr. Erica Di Ruggiero also speaks with PhD Candidate, Allison Daniel, about SDG 2 in the global context.
Listen to the full episode here and check out our highlights below:
Canada has been monitoring food insecurity, the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints, for over 15 years. In the most recent national estimate from 2017-2018, over 4.4 million Canadians lived in food-insecure households.
Differentiating “food insecurity” from “food security”
As Dr. Tarasuk describes, food insecurity monitoring and statistics refer to a very specific problem of households not being able to afford enough food. It’s not the opposite of “food security”, which has broader definitions like the FAO’s – when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life – that can encompass other issues like food safety, culturally appropriate foods, retail issues, food production, food systems, or sustainability. While these issues are important, they are not the same as food insecurity. It is crucial to distinguish between these issues when discussing food insecurity statistics and potential solutions.
At its core, food insecurity is about inadequate economic resources and the inability of our current landscape of employment and social protections to enable households to have enough money to make ends meet. If we want to eliminate and prevent food insecurity, we need to make sure Canadians have adequate and secure incomes.
How food insecurity identifies extreme material deprivation
Food insecurity is measured in Canada using a well-studied set of 18 questions about households’ experiences, ranging from worrying about running out of food to going whole days without eating, all due to a lack of money. The measure asks about food but can tell us more about a household’s experience of deprivation.
By the time somebody doesn’t have enough money to feed themselves and their family, food is far from the only basic need they are compromising. They are likely to be struggling with other expenses like rent, utilities, or prescription medicine.
The measurement of such an extreme experience adds to our understanding of poverty in Canada beyond comparisons of income with a poverty line. It identifies vulnerability to extreme material deprivation and severe detriment to both physical and mental health as a result of households’ overall financial circumstances.
What food insecurity tells us about economic inequality and systemic racism
“Those most at risk of food insecurity are people who are low income, particularly working aged adults and their families, but on top of that what we’ve got in Canada is a very, very unsettling story of higher rates of food insecurity amongst households identified as Indigenous or Black”
When we look at the relationship between race and food insecurity, we see that Indigenous and Black households are more likely to be food-insecure, even after accounting for socioeconomic factors like household income, homeownership, education, and household composition. The disproportionate rates of food insecurity among these groups points to ways systemic racism and colonialism underlie economic inequality and food insecurity in Canada.
New research on racial disparities in food insecurity for Black households has begun to unearth how public policies and protection may not be equitably provided to all Canadians. Moving forward, greater collection of race-based data is essential to expose the systemic problems in Canada, like discrimination in the administration of public policies, and ensure proposed solutions benefit Canadians equitably.
Pandemic responses under the guise of “addressing food insecurity”
Dr. Tarasuk discusses how the recent federal investments of hundreds of millions towards funding food charity through the Emergency Food Security Fund as a response to food insecurity are misguided. Most food-insecure households don’t use food charity and even those that do don’t become food secure. There is no evidence that food charity can resolve food insecurity.
By recognizing food insecurity as a problem in serious need of action, the government is acknowledging the gaps in the existing social safety net. However, the decision to focus on funding food charity further entrenches charity as Canada’s primary response, which has been the case for four decades, despite the body of evidence that we need to ensure households have adequate and secure income to prevent food insecurity.
What the government should be doing to tackle food insecurity
“There is a growing body of evidence that says, first and foremost, we need to make sure people have adequate secure incomes. That’s how we protect ourselves from food insecurity”
The success of Canada’s Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement programs at insulating seniors from poverty and food insecurity demonstrates the potential of expanding a guaranteed annual income to working-aged adults to reduce food insecurity. Policies like increased social assistance, increased minimum wage, better employment standards, broader protections for the unemployed, and increased income support for struggling families would move the needle on food insecurity by reaching those most at-risk.
The unrealized potential of the Canada Child Benefit
“The mere fact that somebody has a child in their household, someone under the age of 18 in a household, is enough to increase the risk of food insecurity in this country…is outrageous”
Our analysis of the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) found a slight reduction in severe food insecurity for low-income households, but it did nothing to reduce the prevalence of food insecurity amongst families with children overall. The CCB is a clear example of a policy that could be easily improved to protect families from food insecurity by re-targeting the benefit to provide more money to low-income families.
Healthy Cities in the SDG Era is a podcast about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how research conducted by faculty and students at the University of Toronto is helping to achieve them. It is co-hosted by Dr. Erica Di Ruggiero, Director of the Centre for Global Health, and Ophelia Michaelides, Manager of the Centre for Global Health, at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, and produced by Elizabeth Loftus. Audio editing is by Anwaar Baobeid. Music is produced by Julien Fortier. It is made with the support of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.