Edmonton

Report finds Albertans have highest rate of food insecurity in the country

A University of Toronto report has found Alberta ranks highest in food insecurity based on data from 2021. The report found more than 20 per cent of Albertans say they are struggling to put food on the table.

More than 20 per cent of Albertans experience food insecurity: report

A University of Toronto report has found Alberta ranks highest in food insecurity based on data from 2021. The report found over 20 per cent of Albertans say they are struggling to put food on the table. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

More than 20 per cent of Albertans say they are struggling to put food on the table, according to data analyzed in a University of Toronto report released earlier this month. That is the highest percentage out of all the provinces.

Researchers found that about 5.8 million people in Canada experienced some form of food insecurity in 2021. 

The study, Household Food Insecurity in Canada, said that total number equates to 15.9 per cent of households across all 10 provinces. The study looked at food insecurity rates in the provinces throughout the pandemic.

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at U of T's Temerty Faculty of Medicine, said Alberta ranking highest is a troubling development.

"In the distant past, we often would be charting higher rates of food insecurity in the Maritime provinces," Tarasuk said.

"This is a new thing for us to see Alberta, stepping out to this extent, stepping this far out of the pack with such a high rate of food insecurity." 

This is a look at how Alberta compares to other provinces. Data from the territories was not available. 

Tarasuk's research group, known as PROOF, drew on data from 54,000 households in Statistics Canada's Canadian Income Survey, gathered in 2021. Researchers defined food insecurity as "inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints."

Close to 6.3 per cent of Albertans surveyed said they faced severe food insecurity, meaning people went periods of time without eating any food in a span of more than a year. 

The report also found that 1.4 million children in Canada live in households that experience food insecurity. 

For Noreen Willows, a professor of population and public health nutrition at the University of Alberta, the results were surprising. 

Willows said since about 2005, food security has been measured on a survey called the Canadian Community Health Survey. In the last few years, the same questions have been included on Statistics Canada's Canadian income survey.

She added that she would have liked to see the report analyze provincial-level data but said the report's findings were concerning.

"Definitely in Alberta, we can't let a situation like this continue, because for some individuals, this situation is quite dire within their households," she said.

An elderly woman with glasses looks ahead smiling.
Noreen Willows is a professor of population and public health nutrition at the University of Alberta. (Submitted by Noreen Willows)

Multi-layer problem

Single mothers, renters and Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable and more likely to say they struggle with having the resources to feed themselves, the report said.

Both Tarasuk and Willows said there needs to be an overarching government commitment to tackling conditions surrounding poverty if there is to be productive movement in tackling food insecurity. 

"I hope that our findings for the province of Alberta, in particular, are a call to action for the province to take a good look at how it's looking after its lowest income citizens," Tarasuk said.

"In the past the differences between provinces may have pointed to differences in the generosity of some social assistance programs compared to others, but the introduction of the pandemic benefits complicates matters," the report says, in part.

It adds that each province handled the interaction between pandemic benefits and their social assistance programs differently, with major changes to eligibility criteria and welfare incomes in some jurisdictions.

In a statement, Jason Luan, Alberta's minister of community and social services, said the province has provided $6 million in funding to food banks and community organizations.

The statement also referred to existing programs like the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, a pre-natal benefit for vulnerable mothers and an expansion of the Temporary Rent Assistance Benefit. 

Alberta's NDP also used the report to criticize the UCP government's response to financial challenges facing Albertans. 

"The report comes as Alberta's 107 food banks report seeing an alarming increase in the need for their services," the party said in a news release Friday.

"No one living in the richest province in Canada should be having to choose whether to pay their bills or put food on the table," Marie Renaud,, the NDP's critic for community and social services, said in the release.

'Little action' on part of government

Willows listed a multitude of ways that lead to people being food insecure. 

"If you're living on social assistance, you can't do things like pay your bills, pay for rent, buy food, so social assistance rates have to be increased," Willows said.

She said this should be a call to action on multiple fronts including minimum wage being a "living wage," regulating rent increases, and exploring the idea of a guaranteed basic income to provide a financial safety net. 

"All citizens should be able to afford food that's accessible, and healthy and so government should ensure that basic human right, why has there been so little action?"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mrinali is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has worked in newsrooms across the country in Toronto, Windsor and Fredericton. She has chased stories for CBC's The National, CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup and CBC News Network. Reach out at Mrinali.anchan@cbc.ca

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