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Food Insecurity in Canada: The Impact of COVID-19

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In the early spring of 2020, the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic (1). It has been nearly two years since this global health emergency began. During this period, Canadians have faced hardships that take on many forms. One sector has been dramatically impacting Canadians, and that’s the food supply chain. Issues have been observed on all levels, from processing to consumption (1). The following sections will discuss these issues, including food insecurity during the pandemic, the use of food banks in Canada, and the rising cost of food since the beginning of 2020. Finally, we will look at what the government has done to address these issues and other actions that can be taken to help Canadians during this time and into the future.


Food Insecurity During the Pandemic


Food insecurity and poverty are nothing new in Canada (2). These issues have existed before the pandemic, although they have intensified over the past two years due to unstable employment (1). Food security is defined as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle” by the World Food Summit in 1996 (2). Experiencing food insecurity will have lasting impacts, including increased health issues and higher health care costs (3). Right now, 20% of Canadians experience some level of food insecurity (2). The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Canadians experiencing food insecurity, with food shortages and rising food costs being the key issues (2). Families and individuals struggling to afford food are changing their diets to what is available and affordable (4). Many are turning to food banks for support if they haven’t been doing so already.


Food Bank Usage During the Pandemic


Food banks were initially started in the 80s to help people struggling through rescission-like times (2). Today, they are relied upon by many Canadians to supplement their groceries. In other cases, food banks are the only way some individuals can secure any amount of food. According to an article published by CBC News, individuals responding to a survey in Manitoba reported that the number one reason they used food banks was income-related (5). Additionally, many cited that since the pandemic started, job loss was a significant contributor to foodbank use (5). Lastly, the report mentions that 25% of the survey respondents reported going hungry multiple times per week due to financial hardship (5). Food banks were started as a short-term solution more than 40 years ago (2). Since 2020, food banks have seen a dramatic demand increase for two years. This is a concern, especially considering that food costs are only expected to increase into 2022. Food banks will continue to see increased usage with no other long-term solutions on the table.


Increasing Food Costs


As mentioned in the Food Insecurity Section, Canadians have seen dramatic food price increases since the beginning of the pandemic (6). December 2020 saw a 5 percent increase in food costs, equal to about $700 per year (6). However, food costs have been predicted to rise by a staggering 5 to 7 percent in 2022 (7). That represents an increase of $1000 per year of food for the average family. The rising food costs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will only worsen the issue of food insecurity amongst Canadians. The government has responded to some of these issues by allocating $100 million to the Emergency Food Security Fund in April 2020 (8). Of this, $50 million was given to food banks to help Canadians facing food insecurity, and the other $50 million was divided amongst organizations to help distribute food.


Looking Ahead


Systemic policy changes need to be made to ensure every Canadian can meet their fundamental human right to food. The issues mentioned above, like job loss and increasing food prices, would greatly benefit from introducing a policy that will raise the minimum wage to a livable rate and establishing an adequate social security net. An article by Sarah Wakefield, professor in the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto, outlines a few ways that Canada can work to build a resilient food system (2). This includes investing in local farmers and providing adequate income to all Canadians (2). Lastly, if you’re looking for ways to help with this issue as an individual, Canadians overall can work to reduce household food waste and minimize hoarding tendencies to ease pressure on the current structure of the food system. Contributing to a local food bank when you can is another helpful step to support your community.


References

1. Paslakis G, Dimitropoulos G, Katzman DK. A call to action to address COVID-19–induced global food insecurity to prevent hunger, malnutrition, and eating pathology. 2020; Available from: https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/79/1/114/5870056

2. Wakefield S. Eating in the Age of COVID-19: Food Security in Canada During and After the Pandemic | University College U of T [Internet]. University of Toronto. [cited 2021 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.uc.utoronto.ca/eating-age-covid-19-food-security-canada-during-and-after-pandemic

3. Tarasuk V, Cheng J, De Oliveira C, Dachner N, Gundersen C, Kurdyak P. Association between household food insecurity and annual health care costs. CMAJ [Internet]. CMAJ; 2015 [cited 2021 Dec 12];187:E429–36. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26261199/

4. New Canadians are feeling the threat of food insecurity — and COVID-19 has only made it worse | CBC News [Internet]. CBC News. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/fed-up-new-canadians-pandemic-1.6275264

5. Stackelberg M. Average Manitoba food bank user is a 50-year-old woman, new report suggests | CBC News [Internet]. CBC News. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 17]. Available from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-harvest-food-bank-report-1.6267507

6. Charlebois S. Comment: The ‘COVID tax’ at the grocery store - Manitoba Co-operator [Internet]. Manitoba Co-operator. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 14]. Available from: https://www.manitobacooperator.ca/comment/comment-the-covid-tax-at-the-grocery-store/

7. Alini E. Canadians are about to face more sticker shock at the grocery store - National | Globalnews.ca [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 12]. Available from: https://globalnews.ca/news/8428651/canada-food-price-report-2022/

8. Government of Canada rolling out $100M in added support to food security organizations during COVID-19 pandemic - Canada.ca [Internet]. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2020 [cited 2021 Dec 12]. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/agriculture-agri-food/news/2020/12/government-of-canada-rolling-out-100m-in-added-support-to-food-security-organizations-during-covid-19-pandemic.html


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