What Does Hunger Look Like in Canada?

What Does Hunger Look Like in Canada?

Canada is among the world’s 10 wealthiest countries. Yet food insecurity has been rising. Around one in eight Canadian households experienced food insecurity in 2018. A figure that has likely grown, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada reported 4.4 million Canadians living in food insecure households in 2017 to 2018. The biggest number ever recorded. Like the U.S. and U.K., Canada has seen significant growth in food banks over the past 40 years, and many Canadians see food charity as a key solution to hunger.

Host: Christina Wong, Director of Public Policy & Advocacy at Northwest Harvest

Guest: Valerie Tarasuk, Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto

Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center

Interview Summary

In this episode, we talked to Canadian food policy and food insecurity expert Valerie Tarasuk, of the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. She leads the PROOF Research program to identify effective policy approaches, to reduce household food insecurity in Canada. We asked Tarasuk how hunger and food insecurity are defined in Canada; who it affects, and solutions to address the problem.

You have researched different aspects of food insecurity for many years, but let’s start with some basic definitions. Can you please explain for us the difference between the terms hunger and food insecurity? What do they mean in Canada, and why is this a problem we should care about?

Well, I mean the meaning of those terms in Canada is probably very similar to the meaning anywhere else. That hunger is a physiologic sensation that signals the need for food. And food insecurity at least as we use that term in Canada, refers to inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. Where it plays out though in Canada, that I think is important is that the term hunger is often used in conjunction with food charity in Canada. So we see food banks for example, appealing to people to make donations to stop hunger in their community, or to make sure nobody goes hungry in their community. And so now we’re talking about a very short term sensation. Everybody can relate to being hungry, a simple idea. But that somehow has taken on a life of its own as a way to understand the problem with people not having enough money for food. And where it’s concerning for people like me. Is that going along with that understanding of hunger, is this idea that the way to fix it is to give food, make a donation. As opposed to food insecurity, where we’ve got a very tightly scripted definition and measurement of that problem in Canada and it’s routinely monitored.

That’s really interesting. So if I’m understanding you correctly, if hunger inspires an emotional response and therefore feels the need for immediate action. While food insecurity is something that is measured. And you mentioned a little bit about how it’s measured. Could you go a little bit more into that for me? And talk about the extent of household food insecurity and who’s most impacted by it in Canada?

We’ve been monitoring food insecurity systematically since 2005. And when I say we, it’s Statistics Canada that measures food insecurity. Where we’re using the 18 item module that was developed by USDA and is used in the United States to monitor food insecurity as well. It’s not perfect. There are only nationally representative samples with food insecurity measurements for some years since 2005. But we’ve collected a huge amount of data from these surveys. And so we know a lot about who’s got the problem and what’s driving it.

The rate of food insecurity varies dramatically depending on where you live. In our most recent measurement which was over the period of 2017/18. The rate ranged from 11% in the province of Quebec to 57% in Nunavut. Nunavut is a very small population, but it’s our most Northern territory in Canada. And since monitoring began, Nunavut’s rate of food insecurity has steadily risen. So there’s dramatic differences across the country, but nowhere in Canada, do we even find a rate as low as one in 10 households being food insecure.

In addition to geographic differences, we’ve got profound differences with respect to vulnerability around household characteristics. The mere fact that there’s a child in the household is enough to increase the probability of food insecurity. The problem is very much racialized, even though the vast majority of people who are food insecure are white, because that’s the population in Canada. We see stark differences in the probability of food insecurity amongst black and indigenous households, with rates that are two or three times, those of white households. Also, we can see very clear patterns in terms of the relationship between food insecurity and people’s income and assets and income sources, about two thirds of food insecure in Canada are in the workforce. So working but unable to garner enough income to make ends meet. On top of that we’ve got high rates of food insecurity among people on some income support programs in Canada, specifically Welfare, Social Assistance, and also employment insurance. So there’s a patterning of it that relates to both geography, but also social and economic variables that associate with social and economic disadvantage in the country.

It seems like there’s definitely patterns in what you’re seeing in the data. What do you think this tells us about the causes of food insecurity in Canada?

I think at the end of the day, food insecurity is about people not having enough money for food. And so it tracks very, very tightly with other indicators of adequate stable incomes and assets. And so what are the causes we’ve got society right now in which we have a substantial slice of our population who are unable to garner enough income, either through employment or through social benefits to manage. I would say that that is the cause. Layered onto that we’ve got the racialized aspect of food insecurity that can only be interpreted as a story of systemic discrimination and the legacy of colonization in our country. Sadly, even after we take into account income and assets and other sorts of variables that in the general population associate with food insecurity or increased risk of food insecurity to be Black or Indigenous you still have an elevated risk. And so it can only be interpreted as an issue of systemic racism and the flip side of it being white supremacy that in ways permeates our workforce our housing market, the administration of some social benefits, it’s insidious that problem. But it’s one that food insecurity among other things is forcing us to reckon with.

My final question brings us to solutions. I know that I, myself as an American, we really think of Canada as having a strong social safety net. And it seems like that’s something that Canada prides itself for doing as well. Many Canadians though have come to see food charity as a prominent public solution to household food insecurity. So from your years of research and advocacy, how has food insecurity generally been managed or governed in Canada?

It’s very interesting. I mean, we do pride ourselves in having a strong social safety net. And in fact although we use the same questionnaire as used in the United States, we code it differently. We treat it differently. So the truth is our prevalence of food insecurity is way lower than the U.S. And I think that is about the social safety net that we’ve got. But, that social safety net has never been designed explicitly to prevent people from being food insecure. And what we’ve seen over time is that it’s not doing that. So we’ve got these lightning rods, like the fact that the mere presence of a child under the age of 18 in a household is enough to trigger an increased risk of food insecurity. Or the receipt of social assistance, or employment insurance, benefits, is enough to increase risk. Those tell us that the safety net isn’t as good as it needs to be.

But I think part of the problem is that the provision of income and cash transfers, which is the primary mechanism in our social safety net. That system is not explicitly designed to prevent people from being food insecure. So there are situations where people are receiving income supports, but they’re insufficient. Then we’ve got this other side of the equation, which is food charity. So the public face of the problem still remains food banks and the appeals continue that if you want to end hunger in your community or deal with this problem, give to your local food bank. We see charitable food assistance programs sometimes calling themselves food security programs. As if the fact that they provide people with food is providing them with food security, which we know isn’t true.

So we’ve got a very strong social safety net that just needs to be made a bit better to insulate Canadians from food insecurity or income related problems of food insecurity. And then we’ve got this other side of the equation, which is this craziness of the continued promotion of food charity as if it’s somehow managing this problem. And many of us have argued over the years that that craziness, that illusion, that food charity is somehow managing the problem is part of why our social safety net or income support programs have not become accountable for this problem of food insecurity, in the way that they need to be.


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