The newly released, fourth annual report from PROOFHousehold Food Insecurity in Canada, 2014shows that household food insecurity continued to be a significant problem in Canada. Household food insecurity is the inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints – it is a problem that is rooted in material deprivation and is most strongly linked to a household’s income.

Although not all provinces and territories chose to monitor food insecurity in 2014, from the participating jurisdictions – Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut – it is clear that food insecurity rates remained high across the country. The situation in Nunavut was especially dire, with almost half of the households struggling to afford enough food and 60% of the territory’s children experiencing food insecurity.

Across the country, households with children under 18 continued to be at greater risk than households without children. Nearly one-third of lone-parent families headed by women were food insecure. In addition to low income, other household characteristics associated with food insecurity included being Aboriginal, being Black, and renting rather than owning one’s home. While being on social assistance was a major risk factor, the bulk (about two-thirds) of the food insecure in Canada were working families.

In addition to charting the extent and nature of food insecurity in Canada through annual reports, PROOF has conducted research to deconstruct and learn more about the impact of food insecurity on Canadians and existing policy interventions. Using OHIP administrative data linked to the Canadian Community Health Survey which measures food insecurity, we know that food-insecure adults in Ontario are sicker and use the health care system more than their food secure counterparts. Consequently, they cost our health care system more – the greater the severity of food insecurity, the more profound the cost. On average a severely food insecure adult costs our health care system over twice as much as a food secure adult.  

Fortunately, food insecurity is not intractable. It is a problem that is sensitive to policy intervention.  PROOF conducted an in-depth examination of food insecurity in Newfoundland and Labrador from 2007 to 2011 after noticing a decline in the prevalence of food insecurity in that province over the period. We learned that the poverty reduction strategy introduced there in 2006 included a number of interventions that affected the material circumstances of their social assistant recipients (e.g. increased assistance rates that were indexed to inflation, improved access to and availability of affordable housing and expanded health and dental benefits) such that the rate of food insecurity for that group fell by nearly 50%. Even though the reduction of food insecurity was not an explicit goal of the strategy, it had a significant impact on this vulnerable segment of the population.

Today, most provinces and territories have poverty reduction strategies in place, however none explicitly target household food insecurity. This new report makes clear that household food insecurity remains a persistent national public health problem. The existing approach of food charity and undirected policies do not work. Policies aimed at addressing food insecurity in Canada are imperative.