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Links: food security

Our Links series explores how some of the major systemic issues facing people in Canada are connected to both climate change and income security and identifies potential policy solutions. This week’s post is on food security.

Food insecurity is the lack of access to a sufficient quality or quantity of safe, nutritious food due to financial limitations (or, in cases of food deserts, limited geographic access). In Canada, it’s a major problem that affects millions of people: before the COVID pandemic, approximately 4.5 million people were food insecure, or about 1 in 8. In just the first two months of the pandemic that number grew by 39%.

Food insecurity has many negative impacts on physical and mental health. It increases the risk of health problems like diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease and is linked to higher rates of mood disorders, stress and anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Food insecurity has many other negative impacts as well: A report by Community Food Centres Canada found that it impacts people’s relationships with their loved ones, limits their ability to celebrate their culture, causes social isolation and creates barriers to finding employment.

There are many factors that can contribute to food insecurity. In this post, we’ll explore who faces food insecurity in Canada, the links between food insecurity, income insecurity and climate change, and some possible policy solutions.

Who is at most risk of food insecurity in Canada? 

A person’s risk of facing food insecurity is influenced by a number of factors including race, marital status and geographic location. Black and Indigenous households are much more likely to be food insecure than white households due to structural discrimination present in the workforce, in education, in housing and elsewhere. Almost 1 in 3 Black and Indigenous households in Canada are food insecure, while for white households the number is closer to 11%. 

Renters are more likely to experience food insecurity than homeowners, and single adults who live alone or with children are at the highest risk of being food insecure as they bear the costs of food and housing on a single income. 

Food insecurity is also heavily affected by where we live—in Québec about 11% of households are food insecure, while in Nunavut it’s almost 57%. (You can find a map that breaks down food insecurity by province here.)

There are many interconnected reasons why food insecurity is so much higher in Northern Canada and especially in Nunavut, where about 86% of the population is Indigenous. Much of Nunavut’s food supply has to be flown in from elsewhere in Canada, so consumer costs are inflated to account for shipping costs. Because of this, fresh food is also harder to find and much more expensive. Indigenous people who hunt and harvest face additional climate-related barriers that heighten food insecurity by limiting their ability to rely on traditional methods of sourcing food.

Food insecurity and income insecurity

Food insecurity is a result of income insecurity. However, having a paid job is not enough to prevent food insecurity: in Canada, the majority of food insecure households are in the paid workforce. With rising costs of living, minimum wages well below actual living wages and an abundance of poorly paid, precarious jobs, even full-time paid work does not guarantee a sufficient income. 

Sixty per cent of households on social assistance in Canada are also food insecure, which shows that social assistance does not provide sufficient income to allow people to meet their basic needs either. Social assistance programs vary by province. In Nova Scotia, the maximum a single person can receive on Income Assistance is $1013 per month. In BC, it’s $1280. In Ontario, people who cannot work because of a disability are eligible for a maximum of $1169 per month. None of these amounts are enough to pay for decent shelter, food and other basic necessities—in many provinces, they wouldn’t even cover monthly rent.

Food insecurity is one part of a much bigger network of problems related to poverty in Canada. In the Community Food Centres Canada report, 36% of survey respondents said that when money is tight they cut food purchasing before other expenses, the highest of any expense category. By addressing income insecurity, we ensure that everyone has access to safe, healthy and culturally relevant food.

Food insecurity and climate change

In previous blog posts, we’ve explored climate change effects like heatwaves and wildfires, droughts, severe weather events and more. All of these can increase food insecurity. Droughts or other crop-damaging events lead to lower yields for farmers, which means increased costs in grocery stores. During the pandemic we’ve seen costs of food increase across the board, from fruits and vegetables to grain products and beef.

Climate change also affects food insecurity by way of its effects on income insecurity. For instance, as natural disasters become more frequent in Canada, wealthier people are moving into lower-risk areas while those facing poverty or lower-incomes are left to more vulnerable areas. Having to repeatedly deal with severe weather or natural disaster challenges household resilience and creates increased financial stress. Climate change can also lead to increased energy bills and healthcare costs, all of which make it more difficult to maintain food security.

Additionally, Northern Indigenous communities that may only be accessible by plane or ice road are becoming increasingly isolated as a result of global warming, increasing the cost of importing food and making it less accessible to leave the community for work, travel or hunting/harvesting. Climate change and environmental degradation limit Inuit communities’ ability to hunt fish, seal and whale—decreased access to these traditional foods increases food insecurity and heightens reliance on expensive grocery store items.

Climate change and income insecurity are connected—and in order to meaningfully reduce food insecurity in Canada, we need innovative solutions that respond to both issues.

What can be done?

Food insecurity is not caused by a scarcity of food—it’s a symptom of poverty. And while support services like food banks can offer short-term help to those in urgent need, they are not a long-term solution to food insecurity. Food insecurity must be solved through sustainable, effective policy measures that ensure everyone in Canada has sufficient income to meet their needs.

Feed Ontario’s list of recommended policy options for ending food insecurity includes improving social assistance programs, investing in affordable housing and strengthening labour laws that protect workers to make sure they are paid enough to take care of basic needs.

Some existing federal policy models that focus on reducing income insecurity have proven to be effective in curbing food insecurity. Households that receive federal income supplements like seniors’ pensions/benefits (Old Age Security, Canada Pension Plan, Guaranteed Income Supplement) or the Canada Child Benefit have lower rates of food insecurity, demonstrating that reducing poverty by providing income is an effective way of ending food insecurity. 

A basic income, which could be implemented in such a way that replicates the federal income supplements listed above, could address the gaps embedded in provincial social assistance programs and ensure that everyone has enough to meet their needs and live in dignity. It could give communities the resources and security they need to self-organize action on climate change by implementing localized solutions that work in their unique community contexts (for more on how a basic income can encourage climate action, see our concept paper).

A basic income is a good solution, but it’s not the only one. Over the course of the Green Resilience Project we’ll hear from communities across Canada about what they need to address both income insecurity and climate change in their communities. Check out our community partner map to learn more about our community partners and their work on building community resilience through a focus on climate change and income security.