Definitions of poverty are often contested and there remains no official poverty measure in Canada. How much income is enough? Should income measures be consumption-based or relative, or is it more important to capture subjective experiences? What is indisputable, however, is that all Canadians should have the assurance of access to enough food to meet their needs, and not having this, is poverty.
This is why the figures recently released in the PROOF report “Household Food Insecurity in Canada 2011” are particularly alarming. In 2011, in 1 in 8 households across Canada, representing 2.7 million adults and over 1.1 million children, faced inadequate or insecure access to food because of insufficient finances. In addition to anxiety about whether or not there will be enough money for food, for most households, food insecurity meant compromising their diets in both variety and amount of food, and in the most serious cases, going without food. I think we can all agree that these experiences represent a level of deprivation that is unacceptable in a country as wealthy as Canada.
Over the past decade, we have seen eight provinces and territories release poverty reduction strategies, and three others with plans in development. While these strategies use various indicators to measure progress, absent from all of them is explicit commitment to ensuring food security for all Canadians, and none have named this as a target. This is a serious concern because household food insecurity captures a dimension of material well-being not captured by indicators of low income. There have been indications that the number of people living below the low income lines used in Canada may be declining, but the fact that 450 000 more people were living in food insecure households in 2011 than in 2008 suggests that the material circumstances of households in Canada declined over this period.
Income-based measures tell us little about the sufficiency of incomes relative to household needs. For example, they do not account for income variation over a period of time. They also do not capture a lack of access to resources to counter unexpected expenses. Relative to other household expenses like rent and utility bills, food expenditure is flexible, meaning that in times of financial stress, food spending is one of the first things to be compromised. This is why household food insecurity is a good indicator of a household’s financial well-being. It takes into account security, stability, and sufficiency of income, where income-based measures do not.
This is why we strongly argue that household food insecurity should be used to track progress on poverty reduction in Canada. To be food insecure is to lack secure access to one of our most basic needs. The stress of running out of food, compromising diets, experiencing hunger, and having to say ‘no’ to children when they are hungry, has poisonous consequences for adults and children living in these environments. There is a wealth of data showing that household food insecurity means poorer physical and mental health, poorer child development, and altered family relationships. It takes an undeniable toll on all those who experience it and is a potent indicator of household well-being.
We would also argue that we need policies in Canada that specifically address food insecurity and that the programs and policies outlined in poverty reduction strategies do not necessarily do this. Based on who is vulnerable to food insecurity in Canada, we need policies that address depth of poverty and insecure incomes. Income-transfer policies need to shift incomes to a basic and guaranteed minimum threshold, regardless of source of income. This would address the high rates of food insecurity found among people living well-below conventional low income thresholds. Households also need to be able to buffer against income shocks, such as unexpected health expenses, spikes in costs of living, and reduction in hours of work. Households living on incomes that just barely meet their basic expenses are vulnerable to periods of food insecurity. We need accessible and sufficient programs that address unexpected expenses and that provide Canadians with the assurance that they will always have the ability to meet their basic needs.
We hope that the release of the 2011 report on household food insecurity will draw attention to an indisputable problem of persistent poverty in Canada, and the critical need to address the insufficiency of current policies to ensure that the right to food is recognized for all Canadians.
The full report “Household Food Insecurity in Canada, 2011” is available from the PROOF website. http://nutritionalsciences.lamp.utoronto.ca/annual-report/
(Rachel Loopstra is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Toronto and member of the PROOF research team. Her research focuses on the interface of household food insecurity in Canada with poverty reduction policy and community-based responses.)