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  • Brent Deveau

Food Insecurity and Socioeconomic Status

Edited by: Naomi Abayomi


The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes an individual’s right to food as part of the right to an acceptable living standard (20). Polsky and Gilmour, on behalf of the Government of Canada, refer to food insecurity as “the inability to access a sufficient quantity or variety of food because of financial constraints and is an established marker of material deprivation in Canada” (1). In Canada, food security is a fundamental social determinant of health. Not only is there a quantitative and qualitative component to food security, but also a psychological component which includes trepidation regarding an appropriate supply of food, feelings of scarcity and a shortage of food choices (8). Literature has demonstrated poverty as being inexorably linked to food insecurity. In Canada, poverty is the single most significant impediment to good health (10). In 2017-2018, 1.2 million Canadian households (1) or 4.4 million people, experienced food insecurity. This is an increase of 1 million Canadians from 2007-2008 (2). Food insecurity in Canada is not only associated with a lower quality diet, but also a broad range of health conditions both physical and mental (1). The number of chronic health conditions an adult Canadian has is associated with increased risk of food insecurity (8). Food secure adults live on average 9 years longer than severely food insecure adults (2,21). Diet related chronic disease accounts for $13.8 billion in health care spending and is the leading cause of mortality in Canada (17) This relationship of degree of food security and health care cost in Ontario is demonstrated in figure 1 (5).

Figure 1

Tracking Canadian data and food charities

It is important for Canadians and policy makers to be informed on the issue of food security. This can be challenging if there is a lack of descriptive data available. The Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) has been measuring food security annually since 2005. However, it is optional and not all provinces have opted in each cycle (10,13). A revamp to this survey occurred in 2015, which resulted in comparative data relevant only for years afterwards. According to the CCHS, the only statistically significant drop in food insecurity prevalence occurred in Quebec between 2015-2016 and 2017-2018 cycle (12).

Families with low wage employment have difficulties providing adequate nutrition to its members (3). It is important to recognize that food charities and community food programs, do great work for their communities, are beneficial, but are not the answer. There is a lack of literature showing they are effective at reducing food insecurity and they do not reach all that are affected by food insecurity (8). Only 20.6% of households that are food insecure utilize food charities (5), making it one of the least utilized resources for food insecure households as shown in figure 2 (6). The governmental response to food insecurity has been to strengthen food charities (6). Encouraging use of the Food Guide is important. Food insecure families are just as likely to use the Canada Food Guide as food secure families (2). There is little difference in food preparation and cooking skills between food secure and insecure Canadians (2). When social assistance recipients receive additional revenue, that money is put towards improving food security. Food insecure Canadians are also 4 times more likely to use a budget when shopping then their secure counterparts (2).

Figure 2, taken from:

Targeting the root cause

Broader public policy is needed to reach those in society who struggle with food security (8), and requires all levels of government (10). Food Banks Canada has an interactive map that displays vulnerability to poverty in Canada Mapping Vulnerability to Poverty (24). A Canadian team from the University of Toronto led by Dr Tarasuk called Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF) has sought to analyze possible policy directions to reduce food insecurity (10). They have found that public policies such as Canada’s Pension Plan along with federal and provincial child benefits have an encouraging impact on reducing food insecurity (2). Senior’s in Canada who benefit from the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Old Age Security through the Canadian Public Pension have decreased food insecurity by half (2). Research has demonstrated that the Canadian Child Benefit decreased the probability of severe food insecurity among low-income Canadian families (2). Since the CCHS began collecting data, the Atlantic provinces have been the most affected provinces (not including territories) in terms of food security. However, Newfoundland changed this trend between 2007 - 2012, which could be in part because of a poverty reduction strategy initiated in 2006, which increased social assistance benefits (2). A PROOF study published in Preventative Medicine, demonstrated that a $1 increase in minimum wage or a $1000 annual increase in social assistance was associated with 5% odds in reducing in food insecurity, and a 1% increase in income tax was associated with a 9% odds of increased food insecurity (13). Unaffordable housing conditions is also associated with food insecurity (8). The Ontario Dieticians in Public Health advocate for a universal income supplement for all Canadians (5). A guaranteed minimum income for all Canadians could help lift families out of poverty and prevent food insecurity (4). In 2018 Ontario began running a three year pilot project in 3 communities assessing the benefits of a basic income guarantee (26). In 2019, Canada launched the first Food Policy for Canada, which at its core is the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council (11), which includes non-governmental expertise (16) with the goal of ending hunger by 2030 (14).The funding has been critiqued as being modest by Food Secure Canada and will require a departmental collaboration, as Food and Agriculture go hand in hand with household economics (15). Food insecurity can hopefully be alleviated with proper policy. If you would like to become informed and get involved, Food Secure Canada launched Eat, Think, Vote encouraging Canadians to make food an election issue by acting (18) Eat, Think, Vote

Food inequity

Food insecurity is a measure of material deficit which is associated with social and economic disadvantage, with studies showing strong links between food insecurity and low income (10). In Ontario adults living with severe food insecurity had 121% higher healthcare costs (20). Unfortunately food insecurity disproportionally affects marginalized Canadians.14 The 2017-18 Canadian Community Health Survey identified the majority of food insecure households came from those where the respondent identified as either Indigenous or black (2). Food insecurity is also higher the more recent an individual’s immigration status.11 Almost 70% of individuals in Nunavut are food insecure, with similar rates being witnessed in Northern Ontario (9). Historical Canadian Governments are criticized as using food as a means of colonization by Owens. She quotes Daschuk’s work “in making the treaties, the government had promised to provide assistance to First Nations to allow them to make a transition from hunting to farming. This aid was slow in coming and inadequate on arrival” (7). Residential schools destroyed indigenous identity and abilities to maintain a traditional diet. This made it challenging for Indigenous peoples to maintain their food sovereignty. A quote from a residential school survivor states in Owens' work in Food Secure Canada “I can’t cut up caribou meat; I can’t cut up moose meat; work with fish and speak my language. So I was starting to become alienated from my parents and my grandparents; everything.” A 2018 article by Loopstra advocated that a Canadian National Food Policy should include a northern context, as these regions often have concerning food insecurity (9). The 2019 Canadian Food Policy is an important step to give all Canadians culturally appropriate diets through access to healthy foods (15). The federal government has earmarked 15 million towards the Northern Isolated Community Initiatives Fund, with the intent of enabling greater access to healthy food. This has come along with a 40 million Harvesters Support Grant to reduce the cost of hunting in Canada’s North (15). Hopefully food can become a tool for healing and returning sovereignty back (19).

Finding assistance near you

1.1 million Canadians utilized Food Banks in 2019. Food Banks Canada is a National website that informs, offers personal stories, and allows you to search for a food bank near you (27). Food Banks Canada

Second Harvest is a Canadian non-profit that recovers fresh food that has not been sold and enables these products to be provided to Canadian food charities and other groups. This includes summer camps, after school and breakfast programs, remote communities, meal programs and drop in centres. It also helps reduce food waste (28). Second Harvest - Get Food

Eating healthy on a budget

Canada’s Food Guide has tips on how to eat healthy on a budget, which include things such as abiding by your grocery list, purchasing foods on sale via flyers, websites and coupons, and choosing fruits and vegetables that are in season (23). Canada's Food Guide, Healthy Eating on a Budget

Canada’s Food guide has tips on assisting with purchasing healthier food options such as assessing your shopping habits and understanding your bias when marketing occurs, as well as reducing processed foods (24). Canada's Food Guide, Tips for Healthy Eating


Food insecurity does not seem to be improving (2). but it is challenging to fully understand this issue as there is limited data collected. It would be beneficial for the CCHS to be completed by all provinces. This could increase transparency to all Canadians and assist with making informed policy decisions. Mandatory data collection was not included in the first Canadian Food Policy released in 2019 (15). The volunteers of food charities do tremendous work and should be applauded; they serve many Canadians. However, food charities may not be a reliable long term solution and reach all Canadians in need. To eliminate food insecurity in Canada, we need to manage poverty. Data from 2007 estimated the total cost of poverty to Canadians is $86 billion (5). Child tax benefits, old age pensions, minimum wage, social assistance amounts, and income taxes have all been shown to affect food insecurity (2,13). Further 30% of food insecure Canadians do not live in poverty.15 Thus, other public policies that could reduce financial barriers include national: pharmacare, housing strategy, and childcare programs (4,15). Food insecurity in Canada is not only associated with a lower quality diet but also a broad range of health conditions, both physical and mental (1). The number of chronic health conditions an adult Canadian has is associated with increased risk of food insecurity (8). Food secure adults live on average 9 years longer than severely food insecure adults (2). Food is tied to our health. To focus on food, advocate for funds.


1. Polsky, J.Y., & Gilmour, H. Government of Canada SC. Food insecurity and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic 2020. (accessed August 3, 2021)

2. Household Food Insecurity in Canada. PROOF n.d. (accessed August 2, 2021)

3. Why is there food insecurity in Canada? Canadian Feed The Children 2018. (accessed August 1, 2021)

4. Zero hunger. Food Secure Canada 2016. (accessed August 3, 2021)

5. No Money for Food Is...Centsless, Ontario Dieticians in Public Health (ODPH), 2021, (accessed 2 August, 2021)

6. Relationship Between Food Banks and Food Insecurity in Canada. PROOF, Food Insecurity Policy Research, 2011. (accessed July 11, 2021)

7. Owen, J., Food as a Weapon in the Residential School System. Food Secure Canada 2015. (accessed August 4, 2021)

8. Loopstra R. Interventions to address household food insecurity in high-income countries. Proc Nutr Soc 2018;77:270–81.

9. Affordable food in the north. Food Secure Canada 2016. (accessed August 2, 2021)

10. Dietician of Canada. Prevalence, Severity, and Impact of Household Food Insecurity: A Serious Public Health Issue, Background Document. 2016.

11. ​​Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Everyone at the Table!” The Government of Canada announces the first-ever Food Policy for Canada 2019. (accessed August 4, 2021)

12. Tarasuk V, Mitchell A. Household Food Insecurity in Canada: 2017-2018. 2020.

13. PROOF, Food Insecurity Policy Research, Provincial Policy Levers to Reduce Household Food Insecurity 2021.

14. The Launch of the First ‘Food Policy For Canada - Everyone at the Table.’ Food Secure Canada 2019. (accessed August 4, 2021)

15. Everyone at the Table: the federal government announces A Food Policy for Canada 2019. (accessed August 4, 2021)

16. Fraser E. Canada’s new food policy means everyone’s at the table. The Conversation 2019. (accessed August 1, 2021)

17. About Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy. Food Secure Canada 2018. (accessed August 4, 2021)

18. ACT. Eat Think Vote, Food Secure Canada 2019. (accessed August 4, 2021)

19. Learn. Eat Think Vote, Food Secure Canada 2019. (accessed August 4, 2021)

20. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights . The Right to Adequate Food, Fact Sheet #34 2010

21. Men F, Gundersen C, Urquia ML, Tarasuk V. Association between household food insecurity and mortality in Canada: a population-based retrospective cohort study. CMAJ 2020;192:E53–60.

22. Government of Canada. Health Canada’s healthy eating strategy 2016. (accessed August 4, 2021)

23. Government of Canada. Healthy eating on a budget. Canada Food Guide 2020. (accessed August 4, 2021)

24. Government of Canada. Healthier grocery shopping. Canada Food Guide 2020. (accessed August 4, 2021)

25. Mapping Vulnerability to Poverty - Key indicators n.d. (accessed August 4, 2021)

26. Deschner MA. Reducing food insecurity and improving health with a basic income guarantee, 2021

27. Food Banks Canada 2021 (accessed August 2, 2021

28. Get Food. Second Harvest n.d. (accessed August 2, 2021)

Food is tied to our health. The number of chronic health conditions an adult Canadian has is associated with increased risk of food insecurity.8 Food secure adults live on average 9 years longer than severely food insecure adults.

To eliminate food insecurity in Canada, we need to manage poverty. public policies that could reduce financial barriers include national: pharmacare, housing strategy, and childcare programs

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