According to the latest estimates, 12.6 per cent of Canadian households experience some difficulty in affording the food that they need. For a long time scientists have known that there is a correlation between food insecurity and poor health. However, it was not until a recent study led by the University of Toronto’s Professor Valerie Tarasuk that it became apparent just how devastating the implications of food insecurity really are: this problem is nothing less than a social and health care crisis in Canada.
Tarasuk is a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences whose research focuses on food insecurity and food policy in Canada. She explains that the latest findings are unique. “Previously, most of the research in the area relied on self-reported measures of health. In this study, we used administrative health-care data for the province of Ontario in order to discover just how much the problem costs our health-care system. The costs we identified are staggering.”
The researchers discovered that health-care costs for adults living in households afflicted by severe food insecurity were more than double – 121 per cent – the costs for food-secure Canadians. Sadly, approximately three per cent of all households in our country experience severe food insecurity where eating patterns are disrupted and food intake is reduced because of financial constraints.
“We feel that this study is making a business case for an intervention: the fact that this problem is costing so much money in health care budgets highlights the urgent need for it to be tackled,” says Tarasuk.
“Households that rely on social assistance or employment insurance are at very high risk of food insecurity, but it is important to recognize that almost 2/3 of food-insecure households in this country are reliant on employment incomes. How is it possible that so many people in Canada are working but still are not able to make ends meet?”
The new evidence suggests that curbing the burden of food insecurity should become a priority for policymakers. Tarasuk emphasizes that all levels of government need to work on systems-level solutions and policies with the explicit objective of reducing food insecurity in the country. These could range from income and employment supports to ensuring the availability of affordable rental accommodation.
“Unfortunately, we have yet to see policy interventions at either the provincial or federal level that specifically target this issue. Therefore, a big part of our research program has been to create the evidence base for intervention and identify policy initiatives that would effectively reduce household food insecurity,” explains Tarasuk.
Another troubling fact about food insecurity in Canada is that families with children under 18 are at higher risk. More than 15 per cent of Canadian households with children struggle to put food on the table. This means that more than one million of Canadian children are affected by this problem.
“The negative implications of food insecurity for the health and well-being of Canadian children are very well documented,” says Tarasuk. “Children affected by severe food insecurity are more likely to develop a broad spectrum of chronic health conditions, ranging from depression to asthma.”
This is why Tarasuk is excited to partner with other researchers at the Lawson Centre to raise awareness of, and promote policy action to reduce, food insecurity for the benefit of young and old Canadians alike.
At a glance:
Valerie Tarasuk, PhD
- Food insecurity
- Nutrition inequities
- Food policy
- Food and nutrition issues related to poverty and homelessness in Canada
In the Media
- There’s a Food Security Crisis in Canada and It’s Worse Than You Think (PDF / VICE, December 7, 2015)
- 1 in 10 Canadians struggle to put food on table: study (CTV News, August 16, 2015)
- Food insecurity a heavy cost on Ontario’s health care system: study (Globe & Mail, August 10, 2015)
- Professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto
- Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto
- Principal Investigator, PROOF Research Program
- Phone: 416-978-0618
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Valerie's profile on the Department of Nutritional Sciences website for more information.