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Beyond Hunger

The Hidden Impacts of
Food Insecurity

Beyond Hunger: the hidden impacts of food insecurity

Every day, one in eight Canadians struggles to put good food on the table for themselves and their families. During the pandemic, that number has risen to one in seven as a result of layoffs and the economic downturn.

Food insecurity means that people are unable to afford enough good food, or that they worry about running out without the money to buy more. While food insecurity isn’t a commonly used term, it’s a big problem — and it goes way beyond what most people think of as hunger. The root of the problem of food insecurity is poverty.

 

   

Why food insecurity happens in Canada

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People are stuck in low-wage and precarious jobs

Part-time and temporary work is on the rise. The fastest-growing job sectors offer lower wages, few benefits, and fewer opportunities for career advancement.

Canadians are struggling with a rising cost of living

Even for people above the poverty line, the high cost of housing, child care and other basic needs leaves them with too little money to afford food.

Colonialism and systemic racism

Racialized and Indigenous people in Canada are much more likely to be food insecure than white people.

Low social assistance rates trap people in poverty

Social assistance rates across the country are below the poverty line and don’t come close to covering basic needs.

More and more people are living alone

As the cost of living rises, single adults must shoulder household expenses on their own, making them more likely to live in unaffordable housing and unable to meet their basic needs.

Food in the North is unaffordable

The cost of food in northern communities is more than double the cost in the South.

Our Findings

The impacts of food insecurity go beyond a lack of food. Food insecurity makes people sick, breaks down relationships, makes it harder to get stable work, and to fully participate in society.

 

“My younger daughter, who was in pre-professional dance, used to eat as much as a large adult male. Now, without access to enough food and only unhealthy food, she does not have the stamina to continue dance.”

“I feel undeserving. I feel secondary. [Not having access to food] lowers my self-esteem.”

“I can’t buy Christmas or birthday gifts for my grandkids, which hurts me. I don’t go to their celebrations because I feel bad.”

“I have to skip meals. My health is very bad — I’ve had eight heart attacks. I have to take 30 pills a day, and that’s hard to do without food.”

 

When we spoke with participants, this is how they told us food insecurity affects their lives.

+ 81% say it takes a toll on their physical health.
 

Food insecurity affects all aspects of physical health, from everyday well-being to chronic illness.

“I have coronary artery disease and had bypass surgery. I’m supposed to eat specific foods, but that is not always possible due to money.”

  • Annual health care costs are 49 per cent higher for adults living in moderately food insecure households and 121 per cent higher for adults living in severely food insecure households.
  • People who are food insecure are up to five times more likely not to take the medications they are prescribed.
+ 79% say it impacts their mental health.
 

Food insecurity affects mental health, causing depression, anxiety, mood disorders and suicidal ideation.

“I feel panicked. I get very nervous when the cupboards start getting scarce.”

  • Forty per cent of people who are food insecure struggle with anxiety and other mood disorders.
  • People living with food insecurity account for one-third of hospitalizations related to mental health.

“I just had a friend commit suicide because she couldn’t get the help she needed. A lot of people feel that way—that no one cares.”

+ 57% say it makes it harder to find and keep a job.
 

Food insecurity creates barriers to employment because of physical and mental health challenges, lack of energy and motivation, and the costs associated with getting a job.

“I sometimes have to miss shifts at work to access food. The food I access is worth more than the one to two hours of work.”

  • Nearly one-third of respondents said that the time it took to meet their food needs and/or the general instability that comes with being food insecure interfered with their ability to find and keep work.

“When you haven’t eaten for days, you don’t feel motivated to get up and look for work. You’re just thinking about food.”

+ 53% say it is a barrier to finding meaning in life.
 

Mental health issues connected to food insecurity led to low self-esteem, questions around self-worth and intelligence, and negativity around prospects.

“If you don’t have enough to feed yourself, then there is no ladder to climb.”

  • Food insecurity also made some of our respondents feel that the choices available to them were limited. Nearly one-third said that their food situation trapped them in survival mode.

“One reason I couldn’t finish school was because I was so sick, and I was so sick because of lack of food.”

+ 58% say it limits their ability to participate in social activities.
 

Food insecurity causes social isolation and limits people’s ability to participate fully in society.

“I get really nervous at work when people ask me to go out for lunch, and I say no.”

  • People living on low incomes are six times more likely to be socially isolated. Social isolation has negative health effects, leading to a number of chronic diseases and mental health problems.

“Someone will invite me somewhere, but I can’t keep asking them for money. [Being alone] makes me really bored—and, at times, that makes me feel like ending everything.”

+ 46% say it limits their ability to celebrate their culture.
 

Food insecurity creates barriers to participating in cultural events and holidays. This can make people feel excluded from their culture.

“Celebrating doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t remember the last time I celebrated a holiday. I have to make compromises.”

“My daughter’s birthday was hard. I had to borrow money just so she could see other kids and eat pasta.”

“I want to make tamales and croquetas. I can’t afford to get to places that sell them or to make my [traditional] food. Today is All Saints’ Day and Día de los Muertos. I would like to make tamales to offer to the dead, but I can’t.”

+ 64% say it erodes relationships with family and friends.
 

Food insecurity can strain relationships with loved ones as people often skip important gatherings or feel strained by finances.

“I feel ashamed that I don’t have food. I don’t know how to tell family members that I don’t have food or am experiencing depression as a result.”

  • Sixty per cent of the people we surveyed said they would skip gatherings with family and friends because they couldn’t contribute.

“A lot of our society is centred around food. ‘Let’s go for lunch,’ ‘Let’s grab a coffee,’ ‘Let’s have dinner.’ I have to explain that I don’t have enough food or money to do that. Then they don’t invite me over because I can’t have them over.”

+ 59% say it takes a toll on their kids.
 

Food insecurity has lasting effects on the lives of children. Children who experience food insecurity are at risk of hyperactivity and inattention and are more likely to experience mental health challenges as adults.

“I had to go to food banks, and that was so tough. It wrecked the quality of my children’s lives. It was awful. I was trying so hard after coming out of a difficult marriage. My daughter once said, ‘We’re just white trash, Mom. We’re eating from food banks.’”

  • Research shows that adults think they’re doing a better job of concealing their lack of food from their children than they really are. Kids employ their own strategies to deal with food insecurity, such as eating less at meal time or asking their siblings not to snack.

“If we go somewhere that serves food, my son will want a snack. I make sure he’s fed before, but he’ll keep saying, ‘I’m hungry, I’m hungry.’ I get so embarrassed because I think people assume I’m not feeding him. We can’t afford that food out though.”

   

What’s the Solution?

We believe government policy is necessary to address the real cause of food insecurity. Policy is what will increase incomes and make life more affordable — for everyone.

Here are four policy changes we ask the federal government to commit to:

Invest in income supports for low-income Canadians. 
 
  • Increase income benefits for single adults who suffer disproportionately from food insecurity by:
    • Ensuring low-wage workers have equal access to Employment Insurance.
    • Improving existing tax benefits so they provide more income by making them refundable.
    • Creating a tax credit specifically for working-age adults.
  • Ensure low-income Canadians, especially First Nations living on reserve, have better access to tax filing supports and benefit services.
Make life more affordable for Canadians. 
 
  • Speed up the implementation of the Canada Housing Benefit, which supports people who can’t afford their housing.
  • Increase federal funding for early learning and child care.
  • Move forward with a universal public pharmacare program.
Set targets and improve reporting on food insecurity. 
 
  • Set targets to reduce food insecurity.
  • Ensure Statistics Canada reports on food insecurity annually and collects better race-based data.
Ensure progress on food insecurity is achieved equitably.  
 
  • In partnership with Northern leadership, continue to reform Nutrition North Canada.
  • In partnership with Indigenous leadership, create an Indigenous food sovereignty fund.
  • In partnership with Black communities, create a fund to decrease food insecurity for Black Canadians.
  • Apply a racial equity lens to all poverty and food-security policies.
 

Take Action

What can you do to put this issue on the table?

About Community Food Centres Canada

Community Food Centres Canada builds dynamic and responsive Community Food Centres and food programs that support people to eat well, connect with their neighbours and contribute, through advocacy and mutual support, to a more just and inclusive Canada. With our partners, we work to eradicate poverty, food insecurity and improve the health and well-being of low-income Canadians.

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