Alberta has the highest rate of food insecurity among provinces in Canada, according to a new report out of the University of Toronto.
Proof, a research program at the U of T, released its 2021 Household Food Insecurity in Canada report last week. It used data from 54,000 households from Statistics Canada’s 2021 Canadian Income Survey (CIS) and found a “disturbingly high rate of household food insecurity.”
Food insecurity refers to the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. Researchers say those most at risk are households with low incomes and limited assets. Indigenous households, those led by female lone parents and those reliant on public income supports other than public pensions are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity.
The report found that Alberta has the highest prevalence of food insecurity among all 10 Canadian provinces at 20.3 per cent.
That means that about one in five Alberta households is food insecure.
“The prevalence of household food insecurity in Canada matters because food insecurity is such a potent social determinant of health. Food-insecure people are much more likely than others to suffer from chronic physical and mental health problems and infectious and non-communicable diseases,” read the report.
“Differences in the rates of household food insecurity across the provinces point to the important roles that provincial governments play in protecting their populations from this problem.”
Quebec has the lowest prevalence of household food insecurity at 13.1 per cent.
The research also pointed to the very high prevalence of severe food insecurity in Alberta at 6.3 per cent — also the highest rate in Canada. Being severely food insecure means households were forced to skip meals, cut meals or even go whole days without eating because of a lack of money to afford food.
“That’s really, really concerning because that’s what’s most tightly associated with the worst health outcomes,” said Tim Li, one of the researchers involved in the report.
“It really jumped off the page, when we looked at what’s going on in Alberta.”
Researchers found food insecurity was highly prevalent among households on social assistance and those who faced job disruptions, having to rely on things like Employment Insurance (EI) or pandemic-related benefits like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Despite systematic monitoring of food insecurity since 2005, researchers said the problem has not gotten any better and there’s been little change in the last three years.
“Not enough has been done by our policy makers, by our governments, to really make sure that the most vulnerable are really taken care of through our public income supports,” Li said.
With record inflation, those behind the report expect the prevalence and severity of food insecurity to worsen if measure aren’t taken to address the socioeconomic circumstances behind it, as well as ensure the incomes of vulnerable households can keep up with the rising costs of living.
“We can expect food insecurity to actually worsen if the incomes of the lowest-income households in Canada haven’t kept up with the cost of living. And for the people relying on social assistance, if their benefits aren’t indexed, that means their purchasing power hasn’t been kept up,” Li explained.
The executive director of Edmonton’s Food Bank said it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Alberta is seeing a high number of people and families who are food insecure.
“Prior to the pandemic, Alberta was experiencing a little bit of economic challenges because of the gas and oil industry and there were some changes just prior to the pandemic that were influencing our unemployment, cost of living, those types of things,” Marjorie Bencz explained.
“During the pandemic, governments responded by providing funds to individuals and families through CERB and other things and of course those things come to an end.
“Now we’re faced with a situation where some people can’t find work or are unable to work and there’s inflation that’s happening. So it’s really a number of complex factors that are increasing food insecurity in our communities.”
Bencz said in June 2022, Edmonton’s Food Bank served nearly 35,000 people through its food hamper program, a number that has doubled since June 2020.
“Lots of people are struggling.”
Food banks, charitable meal programs and other community food initiatives will not solve the problem alone, according to the report, which suggests tackling the conditions that cause food insecurity to rise. This includes addressing the vulnerability of households reliant on employment income but still unable to make ends meet, as well as ensuring working-aged adults not in the workforce also have sufficient incomes to meet their basic needs.
“Provincial policies that we know really matter are things like social assistance rates, minimum wage, provincial child benefits. These are all programs and polices that affect the incomes, especially of low-income households. And by increasing the incomes of low-income households, that’s how we’re going to reduce food insecurities,” Li said.
“One thing that would be a great place to start in Alberta, but anywhere, is to index these social assistance benefits to inflation because we’re documenting these really concerning rates of food insecurity, but this was before the high rate of inflation that we’ve seen over the last half a year or so.”
In an email to Global News, Community and Social Services Minister Jason Luan said the government continues to support the province’s most vulnerable.
Luan also said the government provided $6 million in funding to support food banks and community organizations, adding that Alberta’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) rates are the “highest” among the provinces.
However, AISH was de-indexed in 2020, meaning benefits are not adjusted to reflect the increasing costs of living and inflation.
“We are doing everything we can to help families get the support they need to pay rent, buy food, find and keep appropriate housing, and care for their loved ones,” Luan said in the email.
“Overall, Alberta’s government has committed more than any other province for affordability with more than $2 billion in relief that includes fuel tax relief, electricity rebate, affordable child care and a natural gas rebate that will begin this fall.”
In 2021, the report found 15.9 per cent of households in the 10 Canadian provinces experienced some level of food insecurity in the previous 12 months. That amounts to 5.8 million people, including almost 1.4 million children under the age of 18, living in food-insecure households.
“Living in a country as wealthy as Canada — where we have these policies in place, we have a social safety net that we’ve been proud of for a very long time — to be confronted with these cracks in the adequacy of these programs is eye-opening and it reinforces that this is something we need action on,” Li said.
“This is a really large and persistent problem in Canada that needs to be attended to by our policy makers.”
-With files from Paula Tran, 770 CHQR.