Publication: The Relationship Between Food Banks and Food Insecurity: Insights from Canada

Tarasuk V, Fafard St-Germain AA, Loopstra R. The relationship between food banks and food insecurity: insights from Canada. Voluntas 2019. doi: doi/org/10.1007/s11266-019-00092-w.


Food banks have become the first line of response to problems of hunger and food insecurity in affluent nations. Although originating in the USA, food banks are now well established in Canada, Australia, and some Nordic countries, and they have rapidly expanded in the UK and other parts of Europe in the past two decades. Defined by the mobilization of food donations and volunteer labor within communities to provide food to those in need, food banks are undeniably a response to food insecurity, but their relevance to this problem is rarely assessed. We drew on data from the 2008 Canadian Household Panel Survey Pilot to assess the relationship between food bank use and household food insecurity over the prior 12 months and examine the interrelation between food-insecure households’ use of other resource augmentation strategies and their use of food banks. We found that most food-insecure households delayed bill payments and sought financial help from friends and family, but only 21.1% used food banks. Food bank users appeared to be more desperate: They had substantially lower incomes than food-insecure households who did not use food banks and were more likely to seek help from relatives and friends and other community agencies. Our findings challenge the current emphasis on food charity as a response to household food insecurity. Measures are needed to address the underlying causes of household food insecurity.

Publication: Household food insecurity narrows the sex gap in five adverse mental health outcomes among Canadian adults

Jessiman-Perreault G, McIntyre L. Household food insecurity narrows the sex gap in five adverse mental health outcomes among Canadian adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2019;16(3):1-15.

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The sex gap (i.e., the significant difference in an outcome between men and women) in the occurrence of a variety of mental health conditions has been well documented. Household food insecurity has also repeatedly been found to be associated with a variety of poor mental health outcomes. Although both sex and household food insecurity have received attention individually, rarely have they been examined together to explore whether or how these indicators of two social locations interact to impact common mental health outcomes. Using a pooled sample (N = 302,683) of the Canadian Community Health Survey (2005–2012), we test whether sex modifies the relationship between household food insecurity assessed by the Household Food Security Survey Module and five adverse mental health outcomes, controlling for confounding covariates. Although the sex gap was observed among food secure men versus women, males and females reporting any level of food insecurity were equally likely to report adverse mental health outcomes, compared with those reporting food security. Therefore, household food insecurity seems to narrow the sex gap on five adverse mental health outcomes.

Publication: Geographic & socio-demographic predictors of household food insecurity in Canada

Tarasuk VS, Fafard St-Germain AA, Mitchell A. Geographic and socio-demographic predictors of household food insecurity in Canada, 2011-12. BMC Public Health 2019;19.

Household food insecurity is a potent social determinant of health and health care costs in Canada, but understanding of the social and economic conditions that underlie households’ vulnerability to food insecurity is limited.

Data from the 2011–12 Canadian Community Health Survey were used to determine predictors of household food insecurity among a nationally-representative sample of 120,909 households. Household food insecurity over the past 12 months was assessed using the 18-item Household Food Security Survey Module. Households were classified as food secure or marginally, moderately, or severely food insecure based on the number of affirmative responses. Multivariable binary and multinomial logistic regression analyses were used to determine geographic and socio-demographic predictors of presence and severity of household food insecurity.

The prevalence of household food insecurity ranged from 11.8% in Ontario to 41.0% in Nunavut. After adjusting for socio-demographic factors, households’ odds of food insecurity were lower in Quebec and higher in the Maritimes, territories, and Alberta, compared to Ontario. The adjusted odds of food insecurity were also higher among households reliant on social assistance, Employment Insurance or workers’ compensation, those without a university degree, those with children under 18, unattached individuals, renters, and those with an Aboriginal respondent. Higher income, immigration, and reliance on seniors’ income sources were protective against food insecurity. Living in Nunavut and relying on social assistance were the strongest predictors of severe food insecurity, but severity was also associated with income, education, household composition, Aboriginal status, immigration status, and place of residence. The relation between income and food insecurity status was graded, with every $1000 increase in income associated with 2% lower odds of marginal food insecurity, 4% lower odds of moderate food insecurity, and 5% lower odds of severe food insecurity.

The probability of household food insecurity in Canada and the severity of the experience depends on a household’s province or territory of residence, income, main source of income, housing tenure, education, Aboriginal status, and household structure. Our findings highlight the intersection of household food insecurity with public policy decisions in Canada and the disproportionate burden of food insecurity among Indigenous peoples.

New publication in Social Science & Medicine

McIntyre L, Patterson PB, Mah CL. The application of ‘valence’ to the idea of household food insecurity in Canada. Soc Sci Med 2018;

Accepted manuscript published online ahead of print

Abstract: Household food insecurity (HFI), lack of access to adequate food due to financial constraint, has been studied extensively in Canada and is well-recognized for its negative impacts on population health. Despite considerable high-level political recognition, the issue has evoked little substantive policy deliberation. We suggest that Béland and Cox’s recently articulated construct of ‘valence’ may be useful in examining why the idea of HFI has motivated little policy response. Valence is defined as the emotional quality of an idea. According to valence theory, ideas with a high emotional intensity, positive valence acquire importance in policy debate, and those with high intensity, negative valence are ‘unthinkable’ as a policy idea. We compiled four datasets in which HFI was discussed (verbatim legislative excerpts, parliamentary committee proceedings, government reports, interviews with HFI policy entrepreneurs), representing different kinds of political forums for debate. We analyzed what was said with respect to the valence of the idea of HFI. We found that discussions about HFI were on the whole generally subdued and of low emotional intensity. High intensity negative valence pronouncements were found among legislators’ statements and parliamentary committee evidence. Regardless of emotional intensity level, speakers usually talked about the idea of HFI in ways that elicited a negative valence. Positive valence in discussion of the idea of HFI was limited and invoked comments about individual aspiration, prosperity, and community spirit. Our findings suggest that the negative valence of HFI is an inherent trait of the idea that makes it unattractive to policy makers. We suggest that HFI may be a better metric than a policy problem and that aspirational goals with positive valence related to poverty alleviation might better use HFI as an outcome rather than the focus of action.

New publication in Canadian Food Studies

On September 30, Canadian Food Studies released a special issue on building an integrated food policy for Canada. Featured in this issue is Tacking household food insecurity: An essential goal of a national food policy by Naomi Dachner and PROOF Principal Investigator, Valerie Tarasuk. In this publication, authors explore the social epidemiology and health impacts of household food insecurity in Canada, the evidence base for policy intervention, and the role of a national food policy in driving meaningful action on food insecurity across multiple sectors and all levels of government.

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Food insecurity featured in Canada’s first Poverty Reduction Strategy

On August 21, 2018, Minister Duclos released Opportunity for All – Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy. The Strategy introduced an Official Poverty Line for Canada and announced targets for poverty reduction based on this measure. As part of the Strategy, the federal government will develop an online dashboard of indicators to publicly track progress on selected measures of poverty. Food insecurity is included as one of these indicators. This inclusion will highlight the importance of regularly monitoring and reporting on data from the Household Food Security Survey Module. Food insecurity’s role in the Strategy is an important step forward in the federal government’s recognition of food insecurity as a measure of material deprivation that is sensitive to social policies aimed at poverty reduction.

The full Strategy document can be accessed here.

Basic income: A no-brainer in economic hard times

New op-ed from PROOF’s Dr. Catherine Mah discussing the cancellation of Ontario’s basic income pilot. Originally published in The Conversation on August 2, 2018.

Ontario’s minister of children, community and social services just announced that the Canadian province’s landmark basic income pilot project would be terminated. Lisa MacLeod did not offer an alternative for moving forward, apart from a vague mention of a “better plan in 100 days.”

The project has been running since April 2017. It reached full enrolment with 4,000 residents receiving the basic income payment in three communities: the Hamilton area, the Thunder Bay area and Lindsay. More than 2,000 additional individuals are volunteering as participants in the study without receiving monthly payments. They are helping to serve as a comparison group, to measure the differential effects for those in the program.

The Ontario pilot had already diverged to some extent from other models of basic income programs. A “full” basic income model is universal. It is based on the principle of targeting all individuals in a community unconditionally, regardless of income, without clawbacks.

Participants in Ontario received up to $16,989 per year for a single person, less 50 per cent of any earned income. Couples received $24,027 per year, less 50 per cent of any earned income. Up to an additional $6,000 per year was provided for a person with a disability.

MacLeod later admitted that the cancellation of the pilot was a broken campaign promise. In rationalizing the decision, she explained that the program was a disincentive to participants becoming “independent contributors to the economy.” She went on: “We want to get people back on track and be productive members of society where that’s possible.”

This is poppycock.

Caring about the economy and society means caring about the outcome of the basic income pilot.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s decision is ignorant of the considerable thought and analysis on basic income as a promising policy solution for improving lives and strengthening the economy, ideas that come from the right and the left.

One of the best proxies that we have for understanding the effects of a basic income policy from an economic perspective in Canada is the guaranteed income received by seniors.

As part of the PROOF program of research led by Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto, we have been studying the effect of policies and public programs to address food insecurity and its detrimental effects on health.

At the University of Calgary, Herb Emery and Lynn McIntyre studied the effect of a basic income guarantee on seniors’ food insecurity and health. Remarkably, they found that food insecurity rates drop by half at people’s 65th birthday as a result of seniors’ income supports.

The research team also compared seniors’ guaranteed income with conditional income assistance programs. They found that the income guarantee is beneficial to both physical and mental health, functioning in a way similar to wages.

Addressing poverty through a basic income is not just “the right thing to do.” It also strengthens households’ contribution to the economy. As Emery and McIntyre stated in their policy paper (emphasis added):

What is often not well understood is the efficiency case for addressing the root causes of poverty, and that poverty itself is a symptom of market failure. Symptoms of poverty, such as homelessness or household food insecurity, in this context, are not solely the product of an inadequate income level, but instead a lack of consumption insurance to address budget shocks — unexpected decreases in income or purchasing power of income. The ability to buffer against budget shocks, to maintain consumption levels when the budget is unexpectedly constrained, is a product of a surplus in the budget or the adjustable discretionary expenditure, and access to credit or assets.

In other words, people with more income don’t just have more money to spend. They can also maintain their purchasing power through hard times. They can stay their course as consumers —and keep spending, in the economy —even when unexpected household expenses arise, as they always do.

If the effect on private consumption isn’t convincing enough, PROOF research by Tarasuk and others has examined how poverty and food insecurity are associated with many other adverse health consequences that increase government expenditures for health care, a serious economic concern in Ontario and elsewhere.

Total annual health-care costs for severely food-insecure households are more than double those that are food secure.

The evidence to date is that a basic income guarantee can be an effective strategy to reduce food insecurity and improve health outcomes, saving public dollars. The evaluation of the Ontario pilot would have offered crucial evidence to help us further examine this promising strategy.

Hugh Segal, former Conservative senator and voice of clarity on basic income in Canada, soundly denounced the cancellation of the pilot. His earlier discussion paper for Ontario was evidence-informed and practical.

Segal summarized the economic case for the pilot, and for addressing inadequate income, in his Globe and Mail op-ed:

It is obvious that a failure to reduce the gap between rich and poor is a threat to a balanced economic model that accommodates growth, investment, profits and equality of opportunity. … Looking at the cost of the pilot project is fair enough – but frankly, simplistic.

We don’t need simplistic approaches to pressing societal issues. We need ways forward that best protect the vitality of our economies as well as the people and communities who participate in them. We need thoughtful policy-making based on good evidence, and the Ontario decision robs us of that.

The Conversation

Catherine L. Mah, Canada Research Chair in Promoting Healthy Populations, Dalhousie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Latest household food insecurity data now available

The latest data from the 2015-2016 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) demonstrate that household food insecurity remains a serious problem in Canada, with the prevalence ranging from 10.2% in British Columbia to 50.8% in Nunavut. The rates are even more alarming when we look at the number of children in food insecure households, with at least 1 in 6 children living in a home that struggles to put food on the table.

This cycle of the CCHS was the first to use a new research design that updated the way Statistics Canada selects households to participate in the survey. This change ensures better representation of the population, especially in smaller places, but it also means that these estimates cannot be compared to previous years. Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, and Yukon opted out of food insecurity measurement in 2015-2016, but for the provinces and territories with measurements, this survey sets a new baseline by which to monitor household food insecurity in years to come. PROOF looks forward to sharing more of the data in our comprehensive report on food insecurity in 2015-2016, planned for release in Fall 2018.




New commentary in Public Health Agency of Canada journal

The case for more comprehensive data on household food insecurity
Tarasuk V, Li T, Mitchell A, Dachner N.
Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada 2018; 38(5):210-213.
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Tarasuk et al. review the existing state of household food insecurity measurement in Canada and propose changes to close critical gaps in the monitoring and reporting of food insecurity. Key recommendations of the commentary include: reporting the total number of individuals living in food insecure households; recognizing and measuring marginal food insecurity; making local level food insecurity data more available; and mandating the assessment of household food insecurity on all cycles of the Canadian Community Health Survey.