I am proud to be a contributor to the first of a series of annual reports on household food insecurity in Canada. The report is an initiative of PROOF, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funded research program launched in 2011 to identify effective policy interventions to address household food insecurity.

1.6 million Canadian households experienced food insecurity in 2011

I have two main sources of frustration as someone who has been involved in food insecurity research in Canada for the past 15 years. First, I am appalled by the lack of government attention directed at household food insecurity. In Canada, we have social policies that are meant to mitigate poverty, but we have no policies that target food insecurity, a clear indicator of brutal material deprivation, and one that is closely linked to poor health. Second, I have always been troubled by the media’s and others’ continued reliance on food bank use statistics to define the problem of food insecurity or hunger in our country. Although understandable since other numbers have not been readily available, these statistics diminish the magnitude of this very serious social and public health problem by counting only those who use food banks.

While food bank users represent a very vulnerable group of food insecure, they account for roughly one-quarter of food insecure Canadians. Consider the difference between the 851,014 people who used food banks reported in the Food Banks Canada 2011 Hunger Count and the 3.9 million people living in food insecure households that same year captured in the nationally representative, Canadian Community Health Survey. This shows that many more people than those who seek food assistance are struggling to get enough food.

PROOF’s report on household food insecurity, 2011 marks the beginning of an initiative to make regular, timely summaries of national population statistics on food insecurity more publicly available. The report reveals that almost 3.9 million Canadians experienced some level of food insecurity in 2011, including 1.1 million children! The problem is not under control, with over 450,000 more people experiencing food insecurity in 2011 than in 2008. The report provides detailed information about the extent of food insecurity, what the problem looks like in each province and territory, trends over time, and who is most affected. This information directs us to where urgent policy development is needed. For example, two-thirds of people who rely on social assistance in Canada are food insecure which tells us something out the inadequacy of this policy vis a vis food insecurity. At the same time, the largest numbers of food insecure are found among households who report wages, salaries or self-employment as their main source of income, suggesting that employment in and of itself is not protective.

Household food insecurity by province & territory

We hope that the release of this report will draw attention to the true magnitude of the number of people that face insecure access to food and raise critical awareness of the necessity for this problem to be recognized in policy making. The seriousness of the situation, its impact on individuals, families, communities, on our health care system and economy overall, cannot be overstated, and effective responses are urgently needed from all levels of government.

Naomi Dachner is a Study Coordinator in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto. Since her MSc – an ethnographic study of food access among homeless “squeegee kids” in Toronto – Naomi has continued research in the area of food insecurity where she has coordinated a variety of community-based research projects, often taking a leadership role in the qualitative dimensions these projects, including: an examination of nutritional vulnerability among homeless youth, studies of charitable responses to hunger in Canada, and an examination of meal services in Salvation Army shelters. Currently, Naomi coordinates PROOF, a 5-year program of research to identify policy options to reduce household food insecurity.