Single mothers, Black and Indigenous families have been among the Canadians impacted the hardest by food insecurity, according to a new study by Statistics Canada, which looked at families who were “food insecure.”
The data, released Tuesday in the “Food insecurity among Canadian families” study, used data from the 2021 Canada Income Survey and 2019 Survey of Financial Security and questioned more than 70,000 Canadians from Jan. 16, 2022 to July 5, 2022 to get information on household experiences during the 12 months before the survey — directly in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the study, the number of Canadian families who were food insecure increased from 16 per cent in 2021 to 18 per cent in 2022, amounting to about seven million Canadians.
Valerie Tarasuk, lead investigator of PROOF, a research program working to look at policy directions to reduce food insecurity, told Global News that the numbers are “very, very high” and concerning.
“We’re talking about a very, very high proportion of the population right now living in food-insecure situations and it’s a higher number than we’ve ever seen in Canada,” she said. “That’s very worrying.”
One of the groups at highest risk were single mothers, with almost half of those below the poverty line — 48 per cent —and 40 per cent of single mothers above that line reported struggles with food insecurity. In fact, according to the agency, single mothers had a median net worth of $64,500, considered the lowest among all family types and nearly seven times lower than other families with children.
Among Indigenous families, 31 per cent above the poverty line saw more than double the rate recorded of food insecurity than the 15 per cent of those non-Indigenous. That number also rises to 34 per cent for First Nations families living off-reserve, and 28 per cent for Metis family.
For those living below the poverty line, that number multiplies with Indigenous families at 48 per cent, off-reserve at 49 per cent, and Metis jumping to 44 per cent. The study noted due to limitations of sample size, data for Inuit families was not available.
Racialized communities also vary based on those below and above the poverty line, but face insecurity regardless where they sit with 21 per cent reporting insecurity among those above the line and 32 per cent for those below. The study shows the highest rates are seen by Black, Filipino and Arab families, with even those not facing poverty still reporting rates of 33, 28 and 21 per cent respectively for food security.
For those living in poverty, the study notes it did not have reliable enough information to publish numbers for Filipino and Arab families but found 56 per cent of Black families reported being food insecure.
Eric Li, associate professor in the faculty of management at University of British Columbia, said in an interview that these numbers are a signal more work needs to be done to help these communities.
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“I think there would be a lot of conversations where we talk about the low income family, the single moms and do we provide enough childcare support so now the single moms can actually find a full-time job instead of a part-time job with no benefit,” he said.
“I think that would be some of the continued conversations about how to support these particular populations to make sure they can maintain the quality of life and maintain the nutrition and food security for their families.
Li, who also serves as the principal’s research chair in social innovation for health equity and food security, added it’s not just about being able to afford food but food that is healthy for families.
When people are facing food insecurity they may turn to food banks, but while Li acknowledges people may feel “shame” going to one, he said people shouldn’t neglect these organizations because they can be where families may be able to find those nutritional meals to supplement their homes when struggling. He also urged those who are financially stable and can afford to to consider donating healthy food to food banks.
“We work as a community and I think we need to act as a community to make sure we take care of each other,” he said.
However, Tarasuk warned that these groups are commonly the same three groups being shown as vulnerable in surveys like the one Statistics Canada released and it should serve as a “wake-up call” for many, adding Black and single-parent female-led households are very vulnerable and may be in part from social disadvantaged. This also may result in being of lower income and not having garnered enough wealth to accrue assets.
“So to have a financial cushion to protect them when prices rise or, you know, their rent goes up, they don’t … they’re financially vulnerable, and food insecurity is a measure of that,” she said.
The study notes the majority of families — about eight in 10 — who were facing food insecurity were above the poverty line. However, the agency stressed those below that line — 11 per cent — are still considered the most vulnerable to food insecurity, with rates of 35 per cent versus 16 per cent for those with incomes above the poverty line.
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This overall number for Canada currently sits at 7.4 per cent — meaning 7.4 per cent of Canadians are below this line.
Senior research economist with Statistics Canada Sharanjit Uppal said in an interview it shows income does not mean improved security.
“It’s not just living below the poverty line that you are at risk, but even if you’re above the poverty line, you can still face food insecurity,” he said.
With so many Canadians reporting being food insecure, despite their income, Tarasuk said it raises questions about how accurate that rate can be.
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She said it may show that Canada is not facing a problem of high-income people facing food insecurity and moreso points to a lot of people struggling to “make ends meet.”
“If such a high proportion of them are reporting, you know, significant food hardships, then I think maybe there’s something that we need to talk about with the line,” she said.
When it comes to how to solve food insecurity, however, advocates say it is going to require big action in order to find that solution.
Food Banks Mississauga’s director of marketing and communications, Joanna Winsor, told Global News that prior to the pandemic they saw about 19,000 people accessing their services — a network of more than 60 organizations providing food across the city. That number rose to more than 35,000 in the past year — an 82-per cent increase — and she said those numbers continue to climb with just 17,000 coming in in October.
She said they want their group to be put out of business and their employees to no longer have their jobs because it means people in Mississauga will not be facing such food insecurity, but all levels of government need to step up.
“Anything from being able to advocate for larger systemic change is what’s going to help pull people out of poverty and reduce food insecurity,” Winsor explained.
She added almost 16 per cent of people utilizing their food banks have primary income from employment but they still need to access the service, showing there can be a multitude of reasons why people get into financial situations and thus cannot cover the basics.
Action needs to be taken soon, however, as Winsor warned many food banks are seeing supply drop as demand rises.
“Food banks across the city, across the region are all ringing those alarm bells, that we are at our ceiling of what we’re able to provide,” she said. “And we are urgently needing support from all levels of government and we are going to continue to be there for anybody who needs access to food.”