Why Has Household Food Insecurity Increased in Canada?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society.  Click here to access the full article.

Over 1.7 Million Canadian families have difficulty accessing adequate food on an ongoing basis. In the absence of government action to tackle hunger, numerous non-governmental approaches to managing hunger, including food banks, feeding programmes, as well as community gardens and kitchens have appeared. While these approaches and programmes, which can be found in communities across the country, may give the impression that sufficient action is being taken to address issues around access to food, the problem of household food insecurity (HFI) has only worsened in recent decades.

In trying to determine why HFI has worsened in Canada, we undertook a study of common discourses around hunger and household food insecurity to understand how each discourse frames the issue, understands its causes, and conceptualises possible solutions. We identified five competing discourses from both academic and grey literature: nutrition and dietetics, charitable food distribution, community development, social determinants of health, and political economy. Each offers different causes and solutions of HFI. In our study, we concluded that the discourse least considered in the current literature – the critical materialist political economy discourse – best accounts for the presence of HFI and provides the most effective means of responding to its presence. Most problematic, we identified how some of these competing discourses may in fact be serving to perpetuate HFI, by diverting attention away from the bad public policy that creates it.

The nutrition and dietetics discourse focuses on food choice behaviours and health outcomes associated with HFI. Although lack of income was generally identified in this literature as being the cause of HFI, the solutions for HFI did not generally centre around providing improving wages or increasing social assistance for those unable to work. Rather, changing individual behaviours, including improving nutrition and food literacy, as well as cooking and food shopping skills, are seen as solutions which would ameliorate the impact HFI has on individuals. The tendency of these types of intervention is to depoliticise the issue, by making it less likely that policymakers and the public will consider and respond to the underlying causes of HFI Instead it places responsibility for the problem on individuals, as opposed to the public policies that create HFI in the first place.

The charitable food distribution discourse, similar to the nutrition and dietetics discourse, identifies insufficient income as precipitating HFI. This discourse’s solution to this problem, however, is to provide charity to the food insecure — by way of food banks, soup kitchens, food drives and feeding programs. These charity responses, particularly food banks, were originally implemented as temporary and emergency solutions to dire economic conditions — including recession and economic restructuring. In reality, however, food banks and other charitable responses have become an entrenched part of how HFI is dealt with in Canada. They are ineffective means of responding to HFI and are impeding any meaningful government action to fix the problem.

The community development discourse responds to the presence of HFI through the promotion of various food-oriented community development programs. These programmes not only aim to increase local food supplies through community kitchens and gardens, collective buying programs and farmers markets, they also take aim at improving social cohesion by fostering a sense of community. Although the benefits to community living and improvements to social cohesion are many, this approach does little to address the root causes of HFI — primarily poverty — that result from low wages and lack of government social supports. In effect, although well-intended, this discourse, like the charity discourse, is ineffective at addressing the root causes of HFI and provides a false sense that HFI is being effectively responded to.

The social determinants of health discourse places HFI within the context of Canadians lacking the economic resources necessary for purchasing food. Rather than focus on behaviour or other education efforts, this group advocates for public policy change in areas related to minimum wage and social assistance, housing, childcare, employment training and other key social determinants of health. There has been a recent focus in this group on supporting for a basic income guarantee as it is seen as the most direct way to deal with the issue of HFI. While certainly more critical in its understanding of and response to HFI than the other discourses previously addressed, to date the social determinants of health discourse has not accounted for the ways in which the influence of the corporate and business sectors has skewed public policymaking, thus making it more difficult to address these underlying social and economic causes of HFI. This lack of critical perspective limits the usefulness of this discourse for addressing HFI.

The fifth and final discourse, the critical materialist political economy discourse, similar to the previous discourse, recognises the role that public policy plays in creating HFI. That is, the growth in rates of HFI can be best understood within the context of growing social inequalities associated with the dismantling of the Canadian welfare state since the 1970s and the changes in public policy which accompanied it. This discourse, however, extends this analysis to examine the influence of neoliberal ideology, as well as the influence of the corporate and business sector on shaping public policymaking. The value of this analysis is especially apparent in Ontario, Canada’s largest province, where a Conservative government is steadily changing welfare and social policies under the auspices of balancing the budget and improving economic indicators. This includes terminating slated minimum wage increases, removal of paid sick days, the early termination of a basic income pilot program, as well as detrimental changes to social assistance programs, among many others. These policy changes impact Ontario’s most vulnerable, directly affecting their ability to afford nutritious and culturally appropriate foods.

The solution to HFI, then, is not in improving food literacy, establishing community kitchens, or even advocating for a basic minimum income, but rather re-configuring the power imbalance between civil society and the business and corporate sectors, so that public policy decision making reflects the needs of the majority of Canadians, rather than those of the few. It suggests that HFI advocates join with other social and political movements concerned with promoting the equitable distribution of economic and social resources. As such, although this is the least considered discourse, we argue that the critical materialist political economy discourse best accounts for the presence of HFI and provides the most effective means of responding to it.


About the authors

Zsofia Mendly-Zambo is a PhD Candidate at in Health Policy and Equity at the University of York, Toronto.

Dennis Raphael is Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of York, Toronto.

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