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Health Equity

Household Food Insecurity

Household food insecurity is the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. The experience of food insecurity can range from concerns about running out of food before there is money to buy more, to the inability to afford a balanced diet, to going hungry, missing meals, and in extreme cases, not eating for whole days because of a lack of food and money for food.

Household food insecurity is a serious public health issue that can negatively affect the health of individuals, families, and our communities. The physical and mental health impacts of food insecurity are significant. Living in a food insecure household is associated with a greater risk of developing a wide range of chronic diseases and mental health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety, as well as increased risk of poor oral health, infections and injury. Children experiencing food insecurity are also at greater risk for health problems, particularly mental health problems that can last into adulthood.

Adults living in food insecure households are more likely to:

  • have difficulty managing chronic conditions,
  • not take prescription medications as prescribed due to cost,
  • have higher health care usage, and
  • die prematurely.

Food insecurity is an extremely costly problem for our healthcare system because:

  • it increases the risk of hospitalization, and
  • it results in longer hospital stay and increased readmissions.

The average health care costs of someone experiencing severe food insecurity are more than double those of people who are food-secure.

Individuals and families living on low incomes struggle the most to cover the cost of their basic needs - food, rent, and other necessities. The lower the household income, the more likely a household is to experience household food insecurity.

Household food insecurity is an urgent and worsening public health problem and an important issue for local, provincial, and federal decision-makers.

The most effective solutions to reduce household food insecurity are income based. Keep reading to learn more.

Household food insecurity is worsening. In Simcoe Muskoka, 1 in 5[1]  (18%) of households experienced food insecurity in 2022. The risk of food insecurity is higher for households that:

  • live with low incomes,
  • have a lone-parent, especially a female lone-parent,
  • rent their home vs. own their home.

More detailed information about household food insecurity in Simcoe Muskoka can be found on our Household Food Insecurity HealthSTATS webpage.

[1] Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (Public Health Ontario). Household food insecurity estimates from the Canadian Income Survey: Ontario 2019-2022. Toronto, ON: King’s Printer for Ontario; 2023.

The health unit monitors food affordability annually, using the Nutritious Food Basket survey tool. This information is used to calculate the cost of basic nutritious food in our region. Regional food cost data, combined with a series of ten income and expense scenarios, are used to estimate the affordability of housing and basic nutritious food, relative to income.

The income and expense scenarios demonstrate the percentage of total income individuals and families need to pay for the cost of food and rent. Year after year, the Nutritious Food Basket survey results show that for many Simcoe Muskoka residents it is very difficult to afford rent and put nutritious food on the table. Only people who have a median income or higher, can afford the costs of rent, food and basic needs.

More detailed information can be found about food costs and income scenarios, in our region, on the Nutritious Food Basket HealthSTATS webpage.

Statistics Canada data indicates that household food insecurity in Canada and Ontario has increased significantly during a period of unprecedented inflation.   From 2021 to 2022, the prevalence of household food insecurity in the ten provinces rose from 15.9% to 17.8%. In 2022, 2.7 million households were food insecure. In other words, 6.9 million people, including almost 1.8 million children under the age of 18, lived in households who experienced some level of food insecurity in the previous 12 months.

In Ontario children, household food insecurity rates have worsened from 20.6% to 24.6% in 2021 to 2022 (see table below). These significantly increased rates translate into increased health impacts, healthcare spending and community impacts. It demonstrates the urgent need for effective solutions to reduce household food insecurity.

 

Food Insecurity Children

Charitable food programs (such as food banks and soup kitchens) have grown rapidly in the past few years, alongside skyrocketing food and housing costs, and weakening social support programs. Charitable food programs have been increasingly relied upon to address food insecurity but cannot keep up with the demand for emergency food needs. They started out in the 1980’s, as a short-term measure during the recession to respond to income emergencies, but unfortunately have now become part of the main response to household food insecurity. Staff and volunteers work tirelessly at programs, but unfortunately, they are not able to reduce household food insecurity.

Household food insecurity is a systemic problem of inadequate income that cannot be solved by providing stop-gap emergency food relief. Despite more people turning to food banks than ever before, only 1 in 5 people who are food insecure use a food bank due to issues such as availability, operating hours, transportation, health or cultural dietary needs, and the stigma associated with receiving charity. This means many people are struggling to get by, sacrificing their health and livelihoods. The Ontario charitable food sector advocates for everyone to have secure incomes to reduce household food insecurity.

Municipalities and community groups have an important role in taking action to reduce household food insecurity. Here are some ideas about what can be done:

  • Increase awareness of household food insecurity and poverty by visiting the Learn More tab below.
  • Speak up and talk about household food insecurity within your networks – share key information and statistics on social media or through other opportunities.
  • Take action by advocating to the federal and provincial governments for policy interventions that target improving incomes for those most affected - use the letter template from the Ontario Dietitians in Public Health for help getting started.
  • Reach out to us to get started working on long-lasting solutions, such as municipal or community programs and policies that target inadequate income. Some examples are:
  • Create and action municipal poverty reduction plans.
  • Take part in community coalitions that address household food insecurity.
  • Lead by example by becoming a Certified Living Wage Employer.
  • Encourage local businesses and organizations to become Certified Living Wage Employers.
  • Implement municipal policies and programs that put more money in people’s pockets for food, such as:
  • Implementing subsidy programs to reduce financial barriers to public programs and services (e.g., transit and recreation programs);
  • Developing or enhancing municipal planning documents and allocate funding to improve active transportation infrastructure to make it easier for residents to access grocery stores and other programs and services, particularly for equity deserving neighbourhoods and populations;
  • Enhancing employment and workforce development initiatives to attract jobs with livable wages, regular hours and benefits;
  • Supporting affordable/attainable housing initiatives.

There are many more options for taking action that can be tailored to your community. Please reach out to us to find out more about collaborating on action to reduce household food insecurity.

Our higher levels of governments have a powerful role in reducing household food insecurity by implementing policies and programs that focus on poverty, income and employment.

Effective government solutions to support and advocate for include options within the provincial and federal government’s responsibility.

Provincial government responsibilities:

  • increase social assistance rates to match real living costs, indexed to inflation
  • strengthen legislation that supports jobs with livable wages, regular hours and benefits
  • invest in public programs that make life more affordable for lower-income populations (e.g., affordable/attainable housing).

Federal government responsibilities:

  • Establish targets for the reduction of household food insecurity.
  • Meet commitments in the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy and regularly report on progress.
  • Implement policies and programs that have been shown to support income adequacy to effectively reduce poverty and household food insecurity such as:
    • implement a basic income (in collaboration with provinces and territories);
    • strengthen the Canada Child Benefit;
    • invest in affordable/attainable housing;
    • reduce income taxes for lower-income households;
    • fulfill commitment to automate income tax return filing.
    • Accelerate important work on benefits targeted at people living in poverty.
    • Lead by example, by establishing a living wage in all federally regulated workplaces.
    • Reduce precarious work to improve access to employment benefits for self-employed workers, contract, and part-time workers through the Canada Labour Code.

    The health unit participates in local poverty reduction work and collaborates with municipalities and community partners to support policy and program changes that can reduce household food insecurity. The health unit’s past No Money For Food is Cent$less campaign encouraged the community to advocate to the provincial and federal government for fair workplaces with good jobs, increased social assistance rates, and increases to the minimum wage. There are opportunities at all levels of government to make positive changes.

    Over the past several years our Board of Health has endorsed advocacy for a basic income, social assistance increases, attainable housing, affordable childcare, and accessible dental care to support reducing inequities that cause household food insecurity.

    The health unit also continues to carry out the Nutritious Food Basket survey annually to monitor and share the results of food affordability in Simcoe Muskoka.

    Please reach out to us to find out more about collaborating on action to reduce household food insecurity.

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