Food security refers to situations in which all members of a given community—local or national—have equitable access to sufficient amounts of food and are thus able to live healthy and active lives. In contrast, food insecurity refers to an involuntary state of food insufficiency resulting from financial and economic constraints (Quandt, 2008). The World Food Summit of 1996 stated that “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,” recognizing that food security is not merely concerned with adequate quantities of food per capita, but also with the quality of food available and accessible. This is important because food insecurity is not only associated with malnutrition as it relates to insufficient caloric intake, but also as it relates to higher intake of energy dense foods, which are often also more affordable (Quandt, 2008). Indeed, studies have shown that there are connections between food insecurity and obesity in women and children (Quandt, 2008).
Additionally, food insecurity has been shown to negatively impact children’s long-term physical and mental health, increasing their risk of conditions such as depression and asthma, and reducing their ability to succeed in school. Similarly, adults living with food insecurity are more likely to have overall poorer health, demonstrating higher occurrences of chronic conditions like depression, diabetes, and heart disease. Existing medical conditions are also more difficult to manage in food-insecure environments and frequently result in enlarged medical costs (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2016).
In addition to manifest mental and physical health issues, food-insecurity is marked by experiences of uncertainty, worry, and social exclusion (Quandt, 2008). Households manage food insecurity by switching to lower cost foods and reducing the variety of foods eaten. Often more extreme measures are also taken, such as eating smaller meals, skipping meals, feeding children before adults, and going a day or multiple days without food (Quandt, 2008).
In Canada, 1 in 8 households are food insecure—approximately 4 million Canadians, 1.15 million of whom are children. Food insecurity is most pressing in Nunavut, where 46.8% of households are food-insecure (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2016). Canadian households at the greatest risk of food insecurity are those with children under 18 years of age and the most vulnerable are those households managed by a single parent, particularly female lone-parents, 33.5% of whom were food insecure in 2014 (Tarasuk, Mitchell, & Dachner, 2016). Food insecurity is a serious public health problem in Canada, despite its being a resource rich nation.