A report published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health says Nova Scotia and Halifax have the highest levels of food insecurity in the country.

The report, published Friday, defines food insecurity as "inadequate access to food due to financial constraints."

It shows Nova Scotia with the highest rate of food-insecure households at 17.3 per cent in 2011 and 2012, while Ontario has the lowest at 11.8 per cent.

Also, according to the 2011-2012 numbers in the Friday study, Halifax has the highest rate among cities with 19.9 per cent, compared to Sherbrooke, Que., with the lowest at 8.6 per cent.

The report compared food insecurity between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 and said in Halifax, those levels have risen "significantly" over the years studied.

"Unfortunately, it's not surprising, but it is concerning," said Mount St Vincent University professor and Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Policy Change, Patty Williams.

Williams pointed out that the Halifax figures mean one in five people face food insecurity.

"If you're worrying about how you're going to have enough money to feed your children or how your money is going to last through the month to feed your children or yourself, then you can imagine what impact that has in your household and your ability to parent," she said.

The Canadian Community Health Survey reflects information from 65,000 people, aged 12 years and older.

The study excludes people in more rural areas, including Aboriginal reserves, residents in certain remote locations and all of Prince Edward Island.

Higher healthcare costs 

In addition, research has shown food insecurity contributes to significantly higher healthcare costs.

"It can leave a permanent mark on children. It's associated with higher rates of chronic disease, depression and suicidal thoughts among children and adults," she said.

The report cited a strong connection between unemployment and food insecurity, noting that people with less money are less able to meet their food needs.

It said people who rely on social assistance, Employment Insurance and Workers Compensation are also at increased risk of food insecurity, as are Aboriginal people, those who don't own their homes and people with limited education.

Solution is complex

There is "a pressing need" to address food insecurity, according to the report, which suggests the three levels of government improve employment for low-wage workers, as well as the quality and stability of employment.

It said increasing compensation benefits for disadvantaged workers, "would appear to be critical" in reducing food insecurity in metropolitan areas.

"There's no one magic bullet," according to Williams who has researched food insecurity for 14 years, working with people and organizations across the country.
 
"It requires a shift in thinking," she said. "It's about a multi-component strategy and a long term view."

She said it's time to think about a living wage versus a minimum wage, since research has shown low-income seniors report improved physical and mental health when they move from low wage employment to the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

"We can't afford not to address food insecurity," she said. "We need to think about strategies to ensure everyone has enough affordable food."