More than one in five children in New Brunswick live in households struggling to put food on the table, according to a new report by a University of Toronto research team.

Valerie Tarasuk

Valerie Tarasuk, lead investigator of the latest PROOF report, says the Maritimes always stand out for their high rates of food insecurity. (CBC)

Valerie Tarasuk, the team's principal investigator and a nutritional sciences professor at the university's faculty of medicine, said such food insecurity could lead to health problems and is a damning statement on social assistance.

"What we hope is that policymakers start to take a look at their policies through this lens, because there's enough known about this problem now," she said.

"We are capable of making this problem better or worse, depending on how we design our programs."

The national report, released on Tuesday, found 21 per cent of New Brunswick children under the age of 18 were in "food insecure" households in 2014.

The overall provincial rate was 15.2 per cent.

"That means 15 per cent of households in New Brunswick at some point in 2014 struggled to put food on the table because of a lack of food, or money for food," said Tarasuk.

"So it's a fairly significant problem and that's a fairly high percentage."

The findings are based on information gathered by Statistics Canada through the Canadian Community Health Survey, which asks Canadians a series of questions about their ability to afford food. In 2013-14, the food security survey was optional, and Yukon, British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador opted out.

The report suggests food insecurity has reached epidemic levels in Nunavut where almost half of households are struggling.

Situation not improving

New Brunswick's household rate decreased slightly from 2013, when it was 16 per cent, the report found.

But Tarasuk says the Maritimes always stand out for their high rates of food insecurity and the numbers haven't changed much over the years.

"What's concerning for us about the Maritimes, and New Brunswick in particular, is the persistence of food insecurity at such high levels down there," she said.

In addition to provincial rates, the report examined household food insecurity in census metropolitan areas (CMAs), urban centres with populations of 100,000 or more. 

"Almost three quarters of the people on social assistance in the province have reported some difficulty in getting the food that they need." - Valerie Tarasuk, nutritional sciences professor 

The highest rates were found in Moncton and Saint John and in Peterborough, Ont., all topping 16 per cent.

Tarasuk says the big concern is the relationship between food insecurity and health.

Struggling to make ends meet can predispose people to the development of chronic conditions such as depression, diabetes and hypertension and make it harder to manage existing health issues.

Depending on the severity, Tarasuk says children living with food insecurity are more likely to develop asthma and depression, and there's evidence to suggest food insecurity also leads to poor growth and development.

'Damning statement on social assistance'

Tarasuk says it's no surprise the lower the income, the more likely a household will struggle to get food.

But she says when they dig more deeply, they notice "very, very high rates" for people receiving social assistance.

In New Brunswick, 73 per cent of households that reported their primary source of income was social assistance were food insecure.

"So almost three quarters of the people on social assistance in the province have reported some difficulty in getting the food that they need. So that's a fairly damning statement on social assistance in New Brunswick," said Tarasuk.

She says this is a problem that can be fixed by public policy decisions.