Why People Go Hungry in Canada

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This blog post was provided by Richard Matern, Director of Research at Food Banks Canada.

The most recent results from the Canadian Community Health Survey show 1 in 8 households in Canada (12 percent)* have experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months. This means that here at home, 3.2 million people are impacted by food insecurity. To put that into perspective, that is just under the combined total population for both Toronto and Vancouver.

When we talk about food insecurity, it includes the experience of an older, single woman living on disability income support who can only purchase the few fruits and vegetables she can afford at the beginning of the month when the cheque comes, but towards the end of the month has to subsist on crackers and noodles. It includes the experience of a single parent who makes sure her child has food on the table when they get home from school, but she will skip eating that day in order for that to happen. It includes the single man who, in between seasonal or casual work arrangements, will regularly go without eating for an entire day due to lack of money.

1 in 8 households in Canada have experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months.

Food insecurity is what drives people to access a food bank in their community, and is why there were over 1 million visits to food banks across Canada last March. Food insecurity is when someone worries that they won’t be able to afford enough food, eat sub-optimal food because they can’t afford better, or skip meals because they are unable to purchase enough food.

A Growing Gap in Our Safety Net

In the last few decades, the gaps in our social safety net have grown much wider.

Throughout a life cycle, people can become vulnerable to poverty at different points, such as losing a job, losing a spouse or partner, or from the onset of a disability or illness. Our social safety net— which is the various income security programs and in-kind supports provided at federal, provincial and municipal levels—is what we as a society have developed to help our communities better manage these vulnerable periods, and the boom and bust periods inherent in our economic system. This system was developed to help prevent such life cycle events from condemning people to deep poverty and long-term destitution.

However, in the last few decades, the gaps in our social safety net have grown much wider. Federal Employment Insurance has become less of a support for the unemployed than it was previously, and provincial, social assistance rates remained stagnant, falling rapidly in value compared to rising costs of living. The labour market has also been changing, moving from full-time employment with health benefits to more precarious or self-employment without benefits. Because of these growing gaps, people across Canada have to choose between shelter, utilities, and feeding their family.

Who is Food Insecure in Canada?

When we look closely at the composition of households accessing food banks, we see groups of vulnerable people who are falling through the gaps.

In 2018, 45 percent of households were single person households, even though they only represent 28 percent of the population. Many are receiving provincial social assistance, living on incomes that fall far below the official poverty line. 19 percent are single parent households, even though they only represent 10 percent of the general population. Many struggle to maintain employment while struggling to pay their rent and find affordable childcare, along with other costs associated with raising children.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people accounted for 14 percent of people receiving food from food banks nationally, and face exceptionally high rates of severe food insecurity nationwide. Food insecurity is especially prevalent in Northern Canada, where people contend with a lack of employment opportunities, extremely high and volatile food prices, and the lingering effects of colonization that forced many from relying on hunting and harvesting traditional food, to an increased reliance on store bought goods.

Food Banks are Here to Help

Food banks are here to help manage these growing gaps. Food banks across Canada are leaders in providing support to people in need. They do so primarily through providing food, as well as other supports and resources, in thousands of communities across the country. They are grassroots, community-led organizations that have emerged in response to the unique needs of their own towns and cities. They are on the frontlines of understanding each client’s circumstances and their community’s cultural and regional preferences. Their innovative and adaptive efforts have helped source fresh produce for their clients through establishing large-scale donations from farmers, retailers, and local producers.

But aside from food banks, we all play a role to help the solution.

What can you do to help?  First, find your local food bank and donate funds, food, or your time. Food banks depend on their local communities to lend a hand any way they can. Contrary to popular belief, they are not government funded and rely heavily on local fundraising, food donation, and volunteers to run. There are many meaningful ways to give, and food banks are grateful for them all.

 Food Banks Canada’s Mission

Our mission at Food Banks Canada is to provide national leadership to relieve hunger today and prevent hunger tomorrow in collaboration with the food bank network in Canada. We work collaboratively with a network of provincial associations and over 630 local food banks throughout the country, all with the common goal of eliminating hunger. Our vision of a Canada where no one goes hungry is an attainable one if all levels of government, business, and community work together to make it a priority.

At Food Banks Canada, our work is focused on three core areas:

  1. Raising food and funds to share with the food bank network;
  2. Delivering programs and services to food banks to support their work and develop self-sufficiency in Canadians living with hunger; and
  3. Influencing policy through research, awareness raising and advocacy to find long term solutions to hunger and reduce the need for food banks.

We can make a difference together. Corporations and businesses can make a difference. Governments can make a difference. Together, we can insist on a Canada where no one goes hungry.

To learn more about Food Banks Canada, or to make a donation, please visit their Charity Profile Page.

*Tarasuk, V, Mitchell, A, Dachner, N. (2016). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2014.Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF).Retrieved from https://proof.utoronto.ca/

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