We’re All Paying the Price for Hunger in Canada

By Zoey Feder, Carleton School of Social Work Student

Food insecurity is straining the Canadian health care system. A new study, which followed almost 68 000 adult Ontarians, has found that lack of access to sufficient and healthy food is causing increased use of the health care system. This means that people experiencing food insecurity are more likely to need emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, drug counters and surgery rooms.

The study, led in part by Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto, found that moderately food insecure households reported health care costs 49% higher than their food secure counterparts. In one of their most striking findings, researchers found that cases of extreme food insecurity cost an additional 121%.

While more research is needed to calculate the province’s overall expenses affected by food insecurity, Tarasuk says, “Just the differential that we’ve charted would be costing the Ontario government somewhere upwards of a billion dollars in the course of a 12-month period.” If we apply these figures to the national scale, food insecurity is likely costing people in Canada significant sums.

Research from the Canadian Community Health Survey found that in 2011, more than 12% of Canadian households were “food insecure”; this amounts to more than 1.6 million households and 3.9 million people. With this segment of the population using the health care system anywhere from 49% to 121% more often than others, it’s clear that food insecurity is creating an immense strain on the health care system.

It’s time to look beyond band-aid solutions. In the report, Tarasuk says charities are not an adequate way to address the issue. “It’s naive to think that we can manage this thing by putting a can of beans in a box at our local grocery store over Thanksgiving.” Originally intended as a temporary stop-gap measure, food banks have now become the government’s institutionalized response to food insecurity. Yet, it is evident that they are failing to significantly improve conditions for those struggling to meet basic needs. Levels of food insecurity within Canada continue to rise, with the number of households relying on foodbanks growing by 25% since 2008.

Emergency measures will continue to fail if policymakers don’t treat the underlying causes of the issue and work to close the poverty gap. Food insecurity is just one component of poverty. “By the time somebody’s struggling to put food on the table, they’re probably also struggling to pay their rent, to pay whatever other bills they’ve got,” says Tarasuk. “They’re probably making compromises financially all over the place. And they’re stressed beyond belief.”

Food insecurity is often accompanied by experiences of low income, substandard housing or precarious employment. These stresses no doubt have a multiplying affect on an individual’s physical and mental health. An alarming statistic that speaks to the strong correlation between poverty and health is the difference in life expectancy between individuals from poor communities and from affluent communities. A Hamilton study found a 21-year difference in average age at death between neighbourhoods at the top and the bottom of the income scale. Countless members of the public are paying a very high financial and human cost for the federal government’s inaction.

Canada needs more comprehensive, sustainable solutions to an issue that takes a heavy toll on individuals as well as on the system-at-large. As part of the third annual ChewOnThis! campaign, CWP and hundreds of volunteers will be taking to the streets this October to call upon the federal government to commit to ending food insecurity and poverty in Canada. Last year, 45 groups in 37 communities joined ChewOnThis! to engage people across the country in conversations about access to food and the need for a comprehensive national anti-poverty plan.

Despite calls for a national anti-poverty plan from the United Nations, the Senate, and a House of Commons Standing Committee, Canada has not yet implemented an anti-poverty plan. It’s time for the federal government to take a proactive, comprehensive approach to eliminating poverty, so that Canada can return to being a country that prides itself on health, not hunger.

On October 17th, join ChewOnThis! as we mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and call upon the federal government to take action to end poverty in Canada.

ChewOnThis Parl Hill

To read the full study, click here.

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