Food Insecurity in Canada
In a country of relative wealth, the fact that 1 in 8 Canadian families struggle to get enough food comes as a shock. This Q&A, with food policy and food systems expert Dr. Catherine Mah, takes a close look at how food insecurity affects Canadians, and what we can do about it.
At CAMH Dr. Mah is a Fellow in Mental Health and Food Security. At U of T she is Assistant Professor in Public Health Policy and Clinical Public Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
What is food insecurity?
Food insecurity is inadequate access to food because of financial constraints. When people are food insecure, they worry about having enough money to buy food. They need to make compromises in the amount, types, or healthfulness of the food they buy. They often trade off food against other basic household needs such as housing. Food insecurity is not about poor personal choices. It is about the economic and social structures that produce deep inequities, beyond any individual’s ability to cope. Food insecurity is a public health problem and a social determinant of health. We need dedicated policy action to address it.
How prevalent is food insecurity in Canada?
Our interdisciplinary research team, led by Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, recently released its first annual report on Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2011. The report documents how just over 12% of households across the country experienced some level of food insecurity. This encompasses 3.9 million individuals, including 1.1 million children.
How does food insecurity impact mental health?
Food insecurity and mental health are interwoven. Food insecurity is not short-term hunger; it is about chronic anxiety, stress, social isolation, and shame. Food insecurity is associated with poorer mental health among adults, and children who experience hunger in childhood are more likely to have poor health outcomes later. Food insecurity also affects people’s ability to manage chronic health problems.
Why is it important to talk about food insecurity?
Food is something that is part of our everyday lives. In Canada, food seems to be readily available everywhere. It is difficult to talk about food insecurity, because it is hard to believe that amid such affluence, more than 1 in 10 households would experience it in a given year. The high prevalence of food insecurity means that mental health professionals should be thinking about, and talking about, food insecurity regularly in their client encounters and programming, as well as in their advocacy for vulnerable populations.
In Canada, what are we currently doing to address food insecurity?
Many people are working on food insecurity across Canada. Current actions are a patchwork of charitable activities, public health interventions, and some targeted social assistance. We need to think about this in terms of social equity, poverty, and vulnerability. We need to revisit the issue of adequate minimum income and its relationship to health equity. Food insecurity is often talked about as a private issue, but we need to talk more comprehensively about food insecurity as a public issue. Public policy is needed to address food insecurity more systematically, fairly, and effectively than existing private sector responses, if we want the kind of Canadian society that promotes health and flourishing.