Food Insecurity Affects Nearly 1 in 6 Canadian Households

Carolyn Crist

August 29, 2022

About 16% of households across Canada experience some level of food insecurity, and this proportion has changed little since 2019, according to a new report.

The lowest rate of household food insecurity was in Quebec (13%), while the highest was in Alberta (20%).

Dr Valerie Tarasuk

"What we've documented is a chronic problem," Valerie Tarasuk, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, told Medscape Medical News.

Tarasuk serves as the principal investigator for PROOF, a food insecurity policy research group that analyzed the latest national data and produced the report.

"We had a serious problem before the pandemic, and we've still got it," she said. "It hasn't gotten better, but it hasn't gotten worse, which speaks to who is vulnerable and the measures taken at the federal and provincial levels to mitigate loss during the pandemic."

PROOF published the report online on August 15.

Wide Provincial Variation

Tarasuk and colleagues analyzed data for 54,000 households from Statistics Canada's Canadian Income Survey conducted in 2021. Previously, the research team used the Canadian Community Health Survey.

Both surveys use the Household Food Security Survey Module, which focuses on self-reported data of insufficient or inadequate food access due to financial constraints. The Statistics Canada income survey has a better response rate and is likely more representative of the population in Canada, Tarasuk noted.

The researchers found that 15.9% of households in Canada's 10 provinces experienced some level of food insecurity in the 12-month period before fall 2021. That equals about 5.8 million people, including nearly 1.4 million children. The rates were 16.7% in 2019 and 15.9% in 2020.

The rates ranged between 13% and 20% across the country, with Quebec having the lowest percentage and Alberta having the highest percentage. For several years, the prevalence of food insecurity has been lowest in Quebec, which points to the important role that provincial governments play, the study authors say, since Quebec indexes its social assistance program and income benefits to inflation.

After Quebec, about 14.9% of households in British Columbia had food insecurity, followed by 15.3% in Prince Edward Island, 16.1% in Ontario, 17.7% in Nova Scotia, 17.8% in Manitoba, 17.9% in Newfoundland and Labrador, 18.8% in Saskatchewan, and 19% in New Brunswick.

"The one aspect that was novel for us was the interprovincial variation. We've never seen anything like this before, with a spread of more than seven percentage points," Tarasuk said. "Nobody expected to see that. The sharp distinction was striking."

More than a quarter of food-insecure households were severely food insecure. About 4.2% of households nationwide — or 1.3 million Canadians — experienced food deprivation. Severe food insecurity involves hunger and is most strongly associated with increased healthcare spending, poor health outcomes, and premature death.

Rates of severe food insecurity varied across the provinces as well. People in Quebec were less than half as likely as those in Alberta to experience severe food insecurity, at 2.8% vs 6.3%.

The latest data are not yet available for Canada's territories. However, the most recent numbers for 2020 show that the rate of moderate and severe food security was 46.1% in Nunavut, 23.1% in the Northwest Territories, and 15.3% in Yukon.

The survey also did not include data regarding people who live on Indigenous reserves. The rate of food security among off-reserve Indigenous people was 30.7%.

"A Solvable Issue"

Food insecurity is a potent social determinant of health and is often tied to other markers of poverty and economic disadvantage. With record inflation since 2021, the prevalence and severity of food insecurity will likely grow worse if new measures aren't implemented to help households keep up with the rising costs of living, the authors write.

Dr Jennifer Black

"We know that food insecurity takes a major toll on people's physical and mental well-being and adds significant costs to our healthcare system," Jennifer Black, PhD, an associate professor of food, nutrition, and health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told Medscape.

Black was not involved with this report. In her own recent research, she found that Canadians who had concerns about not being able to meet their food needs during the pandemic were also more likely to report serious mental health challenges, including suicidal thoughts and feelings of anxiety and worry.

"We need to keep shining a light on this issue so that we can make better policy decisions to prevent and solve it," she said. "This is a solvable issue, and we can do much better in Canada."

In upcoming reports, Tarasuk and colleagues will present findings regarding Canada's child benefit and employment insurance programs as they relate to food insecurity. Those findings show how federal and provincial policies have reduced food insecurity by helping low-income households.

In 2021, about 63% of households that relied on social assistance were food insecure, as were 42% of households that relied on COVID-19 benefits and 39% of households that relied on employment insurance.

Dr Lynn McIntyre

"The results of the analysis are important for what is not new: the most vulnerable households in terms of food insecurity are a broken record from the previous five reports, despite using different data and different times," Lynn McIntyre, MD, professor emerita of community health sciences at the University of Calgary, told Medscape.

McIntyre, who was not involved with the report, has researched extensively on household food insecurity in Canada. She noted that social assistance recipients, low-income workers, single-mother-led families, and renters continue to be the most vulnerable groups.

"It really is time to stop the broken record from going round and round on the same terrible numbers and consider a basic income for working-age adults," she said. "We need to stop avoiding the basic income discussion at serious policy tables, and we need to stop thinking reducing food insecurity is a cost rather than a saving to the public coffers."

The report was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant. Tarasuk, Black, and McIntyre have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

PROOF. Published August 15, 2022. Full text

Carolyn Crist is a health and medical journalist who reports on the latest studies for Medscape, MDedge, and WebMD.

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