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Food insecurity in Canada has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Canadians to take a deeper look at some of the things they may take for granted, such as having a safe place to find shelter, having access to health care services, and — after reports of empty shelves due to to panic-buying at the start of the pandemic — even the availability of healthy food to eat. 

Though food supply chains have remained steady so far and shelves are now restocked, for some Canadians, accessing food for themselves and their families will nonetheless become an issue as food insecurity increases, according to recent reports. Though there have always been Canadians who have gone hungry at home, that number has noticeably grown during COVID-19.

In a study conducted in May, Statistics Canada found that almost one in seven Canadians reported having some degree of food insecurity at home — an increase from around one in eight before the pandemic between 2017 and 2018. Food insecurity is defined by Health Canada as the inability to consume a diet of sufficient quality or quantity, “or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so,” and is typically linked to a lack of income available to spend on food.  

COVID-19-related food insecurity may continue to rise; experts report that the price of food could further increase as pandemic related costs (like PPE and physical distancing) cause food suppliers to charge more. 

Like so many aspects of the pandemic, racialized groups and low-income households will be among the hardest hit when it comes to food insecurity. Black households in Canada are over three times as likely to be food insecure as white households. And according to the 2019 First Nations Food, Nutrition and Environment Study, almost half of First Nations households in Canada experience food insecurity in some way.

Newcomers to Canada are also vulnerable. A 2019 study of food insecurity among new immigrant and refugee children in Saskatchewan found that half of the households studied experienced food insecurity. The reasons that some newcomer families struggled included overall low income levels, prescription drug and hygiene product spending that cut into their food budget, and the need to repay transportation loans from the government that bring refugees to Canada. 

Now, the economic impact of COVID-19 — which has had an effect on all Canadians could have disastrous implications for food security across the country. Statistics Canada data shows that Canadians affected by business closures and layoffs have higher rates of food insecurity than Canadians who are currently working. In June, the unemployment rate reached 12.7 per cent in the country, decreasing just slightly after a record high of 13.7 per cent the month prior. 

A TD Bank survey released in July found that BIPOC communities were among the most likely to be impacted financially by COVID-19. In 2019, the unemployment rate for immigrants who had lived in Canada for less than five years was 4 per cent higher than the unemployment rate for those born in Canada, suggesting that new immigrants could also face additional hardships when it comes to finding work during the pandemic. 

Though Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments have helped alleviate some of the economic pressure on families in Canada, not everyone is able to claim them. An analysis done by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that more than 800,000 unemployed people in Canada would not be eligible for either CERB or EI benefits. And as the CERB program begins to be phased out in the fall, even more families could be at risk of food insecurity.

Early on in the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised $100 million worth of funding for food banks across Canada in an effort to address food insecurity in Canada. In 2019, food banks had more than a million visits from people across Canada. About 13 per cent of all food bank users are immigrants or refugees, according to a 2016 HungerCount report. 

However, food banks are only a short-term solution. In fact, experts argue, the idea that they are the final solution to the problem of hunger in Canada is actually not supported by data. Valerie Tarasuk and Lynn McIntyre, researchers at the food security research program PROOF, argue that providing basic income directly to individuals — not relying on food banks — is the best way of addressing the issue. 

By choosing not to confront the full picture of food insecurity in Canada, governments are putting the health and welfare of Canadians at risk — particularly vulnerable BIPOC communities and new immigrants. Food insecurity has serious impacts on health, including higher rates of iron deficiency anemia, hypertension, and diabetes among those affected. It’s also linked to higher health care costs and, in the most severe cases, can reduce life expectancy by nine years

The solution, say Tarasuk and McIntyre, is to address the root cause of the issue by providing further financial support directly to Canadians. And, as the pandemic continues to drag on, to do so quickly. “Without effective responses to the additional hardships brought on by COVID-19, the number of people affected by food insecurity and the levels of deprivation they face are going to get a whole lot worse,” they write in an article for Policy Options. “So, mounting an effective response now is critical.”