Nearly 6 million people in Canada experienced food insecurity in 2021, U of T study says

About 5.8 million people in Canada experienced some form of food insecurity in 2021, according to a new study released on Wednesday by University of Toronto researchers.

Problem hasn't gotten any better in the past 3 years, researchers warn

Workers at the North York Harvest Food Bank prepare fresh food bags as people line up during the opening of the new Bathurst-Finch Community Food Space in Toronto late last month. (Sabah Rahman/CBC)

About 5.8 million people in Canada experienced some form of food insecurity in 2021, according to a new study released on Wednesday by University of Toronto researchers.

That number includes 1.4 million children.

The study, Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2021, says the 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 and up until the current period of record inflation.

The researchers found the problem hasn't gotten any better in the last three years.

"We've seen no palpable improvement in food insecurity for low-income households in Canada," Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at U of T's Temerty Faculty of Medicine, said in a news release on Wednesday. 

According to the study, there are major differences in food insecurity among the provinces, ranging from 13.1 per cent of households in Quebec to 20.3 per cent of households in Alberta, and Ontario was in the middle when it came to both overall and severe food insecurity. Data collected in the territories is not available yet, the study says.

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."

In Ontario, one in six households, or 16.1 per cent, were food insecure in 2021, a number equal to 2.3 million people. As well, 4.6 per cent, or 259,000 households in the province, experienced severe food insecurity, which means family members missed meals, reduced their intake of food, or went days without eating due to a lack of money.

Food insecurity persisting, researchers say

"Household food insecurity is a marker of material deprivation, tightly linked to other indicators of social and economic disadvantage. Households with lower incomes are more likely to be food insecure," the report's executive summary says. 

The researchers say the high rates of food insecurity are persisting and are "deeply concerning," given the impact on human health and the health-care system. They believe the problem of food insecurity is expected to get worse if incomes fail to keep up with inflation.

"The persistently high prevalence of household food insecurity across Canada and the patterns of vulnerability documented in this report spotlight the need for more effective, evidence-based policy responses by federal and provincial governments," the report's executive summary says.

The report calls on governments to address the vulnerability of households that are reliant on employment incomes but still unable to make ends meet, and ensure that working-aged adults not in the workforce also have sufficient incomes to meet basic needs. 

Dramatic increase of food bank use 

Neil Hetherington, Daily Bread Food Bank CEO, says he's witnessed food insecurity rates rise dramatically. 

In 2019, the charity saw about 60,000 monthly visits during this time of year, he told CBC News. That number now has nearly tripled to 171,000 monthly client visits.

Volunteers with Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank prepare food for distribution at the its warehouse in August of 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Noting Daily Bread has real-time data, he said increased food bank use occurred in two stages. Monthly visits nearly doubled within the first 18 months to just under two years of the pandemic. The next surge was when inflation hit in February and saw the number of monthly visits climb to where they sit now.

He suspects monthly food bank visits to continually trend upwards. Come May, he estimates 225,000 client visits per month in the city of Toronto alone.

A lack of affordable housing and poverty are at the crux of the matter, he says.

Social assistance needs to go up, says advocate

Greg deGroot-Maggetti, programs advocacy associate with the Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, works with people experiencing poverty and homelessness. In Waterloo Region where he's based, deGroot-Maggetti said a single adult would need more than $1,900 a month to reach the poverty line.

In Toronto, that line is much higher, he said.

He told CBC News that there are two kinds of social assistance in the province: the Ontario Disability Support Program that maxes out under $1,200 a month, and Ontario Works, which is about $730 a month. He noted that disability is set go up by five per cent in September — almost $60 a month.

"That's still not even enough to get close to the poverty line," he said of the disability increase, noting that the "stunning" Ontario Works' number is "nowhere close to be able to afford an apartment, or a room, let alone food."

DeGroot-Maggetti cited the $2,000 monthly Canadian Emergency Response Benefit as an estimated baseline for how much people would need to get by, adding that if ODSP rates doubled, that would bring recipients up to the poverty line. 

If Ontario Works doubled, he said, that "would still leave folks far below the poverty line. But that's the scale of increase that is needed."

With files from Muriel Draaisma and Dale Manucdoc


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