About 1.6 million Canadian households faced some level of food insecurity in 2011, according to a new report.
That amounts to nearly one in eight families who have inadequate access to regular, healthy meals because of financial constraints.
And the problem is getting worse says the report, entitled Household Food Insecurity in Canada, produced by a research team from the University of Toronto, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Calgary, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
There were 450,000 more Canadians living in households affected by food insecurity in 2011 than in 2008.
The report is based on data from Statistics Canada’s Household Food Security Survey Module, which was part of the annual Canadian Community Health Survey.
The estimated 60,000 respondents were asked 18 questions, ranging from whether they've ever experienced anxiety about running out of food, to whether they've ever gone a full day without eating.
Households with children under the age of 18 are more likely to be food insecure, says the study, which does not include data from homeless people.
More than 1.1 million children, or one in six, were living in a home where people reported struggling to put food on the table in 2011.
Nunavut, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick had the highest prevalence of children living in food-insecure households at 57 per cent, 27 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.
"Food insecurity is a problem of purchasing power and to have one in four children in New Brunswick, struggling, living in households struggling, it's got to be a story of income," said nutritional scientist Valerie Tarasuk, the lead researcher on the 26-page report.
"These are people who don't have enough money to make ends meet from one month to the next."
New policies needed
She and the other researchers contend there should be new policies designed specifically to tackle food insecurity.
"The increased prevalence nationally, the alarming rates in the North and the Maritimes, and the sheer volume of affected households in our largest provinces suggest that reducing the prevalence of food insecurity requires attention and action by the federal, provincial and territorial governments," the report states.
"A problem this big can't be fixed by food charity," such as food banks, said Tarasuk. "It needs more serious responses that respond directly to the root causes."
She points to Newfoundland and Labrador, which launched a "very aggressive" poverty reduction strategy in 2006, as an example.
It now has the lowest rate of household food insecurity at 10.6 per cent, compared with 15.7 per cent in 2007. No other province or territory has shown a steady decline.
Without more such programs, the consequences will be "very disturbing," said Tarasuk.
"Food insecurity takes an indelible toll, an indelible mark on children's health — both physical health and mental health. So it is a problem, it's a serious problem to have so many Canadians living in these conditions."
John Roop, who recently moved to Saint John, said he and his daughter are struggling. But people in the city have never hesitated to lend a helping hand, he said.
"I tell her, hold your chin up. Things will get better. Sooner or later," said Roop.
"You always gotta hit rock bottom before you get back to the top."
The lunch program at the local Boys and Girls Club helps feed 100 children five days a week during the school year, said program services manager Sandra McGowan.
She said many families in the area live below the poverty line.
"We feed kids all the time, not just the lunch time," said McGowan. "We have kids that come into our evening program, come up to tell us they're hungry. We know they probably didn't have something for supper. So we don't hesitate to find them something for supper."
The nearby Romero House soup kitchen sees people of all ages in need. Volunteer Phyllis Beckingham said a growing number of people have been coming through the doors in recent months.
"There's a lot of new faces," she said. "We have a lot of single men and women that come in, we have people with families. We have children that come in. And prices are going up — like bread's going up, milk … gas."