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How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting food security in Canada

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As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across Canada, officials are struggling to provide aid to those who have been impacted by the pandemic.

And experts say organizations tasked with combating food insecurity are already feeling the strain as more and more people seek assistance. 
How is the COVID-19 affecting those experiencing food insecurity? Are more people going to become food insecure?
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Here’s a look at what’s going on.

How many people are food insecure in Canada?

A study released earlier this month from PROOF, an interdisciplinary research program investigating household food insecurity in Canada, found that one in eight households across the country is food insecure.

“This represents 4.4 million people, the largest number recorded since Canada began monitoring food insecurity,” the report said.

The report added this number — reflective of 103,500 households from Statistics Canada’s 2017-18 Canadian Community Health Survey — is an underestimate, as it did not include people living on First Nations reserves, some remote northern areas, or the homeless.

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The report also found that 17 per cent of children under the age of 18 — more than one in six — live in a family experiencing food insecurity.

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Gisèle Yasmeen, executive director at Food Secure Canada, said even before the coronavirus outbreak, food insecurity in Canada was already “trending in the wrong direction.”

“The urgency, or the concern, is that a situation that was already concerning in a wealthy country like Canada is getting worse as a result of this crisis,” she said.

How will COVID-19 affect food insecurity in Canada?

Nick Saul, CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, said many who were already food insecure are considered “very precariously employed.”

“Not enough hours, not enough benefits, only one salary carrying a whole family, and that salary just doesn’t pay enough,” he explained. “So when you have something like COVID, hit in the midst of that stress and uncertainty and anxiety, those ranks are only going to grow.”

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While COVID-19 continues to spread in Canada, provincial governments have ordered non-essential businesses to close, forcing mass lay-offs.

As a result, since mid-March more than one million Canadians have applied for unemployment insurance.

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Saul said this means more people will be accessing assistance at more than 200 locations across the country. 

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“All of those people are going to be very worried about their food. So more and more people coming to the community food centres, the good food organizations that we run across this country,” he said. “So it’s going to be busy and the stress will be high.”

Saul added centres are already seeing an increase in demand.

“I can absolutely tell you that more and more people are showing up at the doors of those centres,” he said. “And that’s a significant concern.”

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But, Saul said these organizations don’t have the capacity to deal with the surge, saying that even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the charitable sector was “not coming close” to addressing the need.

“Many of us who are on the frontlines of this were saying we need to increase minimum wages, we need to build more affordable housing,” he said. 

“So now there is a new wave of people who are joining those ranks and the numbers are just going to continue to grow.”

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Saul said the COVID-19 pandemic is putting extra strain on those who were already food insecure before the outbreak.

He explained those receiving social assistance already have difficulty navigating food, shelter and transportation, without the extra stress of a pandemic.

“And that’s a deep concern that, as a society, we have to face up to and do better going forward,” he said. 

READ MORE: How long will coronavirus measures last in Canada? Experts say June or July

An ‘opening for transformative change’

The federal government announced last month it would spend up to $82 billion to support Canadians affected by COVID-19, including $55 billion to meet the liquidity needs of Canadian businesses and households through tax deferrals. The total amount of support was later increased to $107 billion.

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The government has also said all companies will get 75 per cent of salaries covered, if they’ve lost 30 per cent of their revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said business of all sizes, charities and non-profits are eligible for the emergency wage subsidy. Trudeau also urged Canadians to continue to donate to charitable organizations amid the pandemic so they can continue to operate.

READ MORE: ‘It’s critical’: More than 200 charities call on feds for funding amid COVID-19

Saul said he is glad the government is working to provide support to businesses to keep people employed, adding that he hopes the money is disseminated quickly.

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“The government has responded as well on the emergency side, flowing money out to our sector,” he said. “So that’s good, that’s really good and important.”

Saul said the economic measures announced by the government are “really important medium-term responses,” but said once the pandemic is over, “we have to get back to talking about the structural inequalities that exist in our society because they were massive and they’ve only been exacerbated by the current COVID crisis.”

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Yasmeen echoed Saul’s remarks, saying Canada needs to address the urgent crisis, but that the situation should also be used as an “opening for transformative change.”

She said they have been calling for a “more integrated, better social safety net” and for a universal basic income in Canada in order to address food insecurity.

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“We have a patchwork of social programs, both federally, provincially, etc.,” she said. “So it’s really time to not just invest in an emergency type way, but transform our system so that we don’t have these people falling through the cracks.”