Insights on Canadian Society
Food insecurity among Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat
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Using data from the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS), this study examines the prevalence of food insecurity among Inuit aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat, and the factors associated with food insecurity among Inuit adults. Food insecurity can refer to situations when the amount of food purchased does not last and there is not enough money to buy more food, balanced meals are unaffordable, or household members cut the size of their meals or skip meals because there is not enough money for sufficient food. This study also discusses some of the health outcomes of Inuit adults who live in a food insecure household.
- In 2012, more than one-half (52%) of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat aged 25 and over lived a in household that experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months (i.e., they answered positively to at least two of the six food insecurity questions in the APS). This compared with 14% of Inuit living outside Inuit Nunangat.
- One aspect of food insecurity is a lack of money to buy food. In 2012, nearly one-third (32%) of Inuit adults in Inuit Nunangat ate less than they should have eaten because they could not afford to buy food. Furthermore, 27% of Inuit adults reported that they had been hungry because they could not afford enough food.
- In Nunavut and in Nunavik, at least 55% of Inuit adults (aged 25 and over) lived in a household that experienced food insecurity. This compared with 42% in Nunatsiavut and 33% in the Inuvialuit Region.
- Some Inuit adults had a higher probability of experiencing food insecurity, including women, those who had children, the unemployed, those who lived in a crowded dwelling, and those who had weaker extended family ties.
- Among Inuit adults aged 25 and over who lived in a food insecure household, 70% reported that they were in “good”, “fair” or “poor” health (as opposed to “excellent” or “very good”.) This compared with 57% among those who did not experience food insecurity in the last 12 months.
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Food security refers to “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 life.”Note 1 Conversely, food insecurity occurs when one or more household members do not have access to an acceptable amount of quality healthy food, usually because of financial constraints.Note 2
In 2012 about 4 million individuals in Canada, including 1.15 million children under the age of 18, had experienced some level of food insecurity during the previous 12 months. This represents about 13% of Canadian households.Note 3
Food insecurity is an important social and public health issue in Canada as it has been shown to contribute to poor health including restricted mobility and chronic conditions, as well as poor mental health and mental distress.Note 4 In addition, it is linked to lower educational outcomes and family stress.Note 5
Research has also shown that food insecurity is higher among the Aboriginal population than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. For example, according to data from the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS), 1 in 5 (20%) Aboriginal people aged 15 and over (First Nations living off reserve, Métis and Inuit) lived in a household that experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 monthsNote 6 compared with 8% of the non-Aboriginal population (according to the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey).Note 7
The prevalence of food insecurity differs considerably depending on where people live. Existing research has shown that food insecurity is most prevalent in Canada’s North. For example, in 2014 the prevalence of food insecurity in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories rose to the highest levels observed since monitoring began in 2005.Note 8 Results from the 2007/2008 International Polar Year Inuit Health Survey show that Inuit in Nunavut had the highest documented food insecurity rate for any Indigenous population in a developed country.Note 9
This paper focuses on food insecurity among Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland in Canada.Note 10 Inuit Nunangat includes the communities located in the four Inuit regions: Nunatsiavut (Northern coastal Labrador), Nunavik (Northern Quebec), the territory of Nunavut, and the Inuvialuit Region of the Northwest Territories.Note 11 The food security challenges faced by Inuit are more extreme, especially for those living in remote and isolated communities.Note 12
A particular challenge in these regions is the price of market food, which is driven by a number of factors including transportation, costs of maintaining stores in remote communities, spoilage of food, and inventory costs.Note 13 According to the Revised Northern Food Basket, it costs from $328 to $488 per week to provide a healthy diet to a family of four in an isolated Inuit community, whereas the same basket of goods would cost approximately $209 in a southern city centre such as Ottawa.Note 14 Similarly, the Nunavik Comparative Price Index has found that identical food baskets cost 81% more in Nunavik than in Québec.Note 15
As a result of these high numbers, many strategies and programs have been put in place to alleviate the high cost of nutritious food in the North. The Government of Canada has, for example, subsidized food in northern communities since the 1960s. Nutrition North Canada, which replaced the Food Mail Program in 2011, subsidizes the cost of perishable nutritious food that must be shipped by air to eligible communities and also provides funding for retail and community-based nutrition education initiatives.Note 16
There are also many strategies at the regional level that aim to address the larger issue of food insecurity including the Nunavut Food Security Strategy launched by the Nunavut Food Security Coalition in 2014, and the Anti-Poverty Strategic Framework in the Northwest Territories.Note 17 These programs focus on areas such as availability of country foodNote 18 and store-bought food, local food production, life skills, healthy eating habits and sustainable communities.
Existing research has shown that a number of factors, aside from market food prices, are associated with food insecurity, including lower household income, crowding and the presence of children in the home. Using data from the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS), the first part of this paper examines the prevalence of food insecurity among Inuit aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat. This age restriction is applied because of the need to focus on certain socioeconomic factors such as educational attainment and labour force participation.
The second part of this paper adds to the existing research by examining, in a multivariate model, the factors associated with food insecurity among Inuit adults. In addition, some health outcomes of Inuit adults living in food insecure households are also examined. The outcomes include self-rated health, chronic conditions and mental health. Food insecurity is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon, and understanding the determinants of food insecurity can provide information for policymakers to develop long-term strategies or solutions to address this issue.
Defining food insecurity
In the Aboriginal Peoples Survey, food insecurity refers to situations when the food purchased does not last (i.e., running out of food) and there is not enough money to buy more food, balanced meals are unaffordable, or household members cut the size of their meals or skip meals because there is not enough money for sufficient food. The questions used in the module as well as the responses are shown in Table 1.
|Q1. Food didn't last / no money to buy more|
|Q2. Balanced meals unaffordable|
|Q3. Meals skipped / cut meal size because there wasn't enough money to buy food|
|Q3a. Frequency of meals skipped / cut meal sizeTable 1 Note 1|
|Almost every month||40.5|
|Some months but not every month||42.1|
|Only 1 or 2 months||17.4|
|Q4. Ate less than you felt you should because there wasn't enough money to buy food|
|Q5. Hungry but could not afford food|
Source: Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2012.
In 2012, for example, 16% of Inuit aged 25 and over in Inuit Nunangat lived in a household where it was often true that food did not last and there was no money to buy more food during the past 12 months. An additional 43% reported this to be sometimes true.
In addition, about 3 in 10 (31%) Inuit lived in a household where they or other household members cut the size of their meals or skipped meals because there was not enough money for food. Among those who skipped meals or cut meal size, 41% reported doing so almost every month while an additional 42% reported skipping some months but not every month.
Furthermore, almost one-third (32%) of Inuit reported eating less than they should because there was not enough money to buy food, while just over one-quarter (27%) reported that, in the previous 12 months, they had been hungry because they could not afford enough food.
The level of food security in a household is derived from the answers provided by survey respondents. Those who provided affirmative answers to at least two of the above questions are considered to be living in a household that is “food insecure” (see Data sources, methods and definitions).
Prevalence of food insecurity in Inuit Nunangat
According to the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, more than one-half (52%) of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat aged 25 and over lived in a household that had experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months compared with 14%E: Use with caution of Inuit living outside Inuit Nunangat (Chart 1).
Data table for Chart 1
|Outside Inuit Nunangat||14.3Note E: Use with caution|
E use with caution
Source: Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2012.
The prevalence of food insecurity also varied by Inuit region. For example, 56% of Inuit aged 25 and over in Nunavut lived in a household that had experienced food insecurity compared with 55% in Nunavik, 42% in Nunatsiavut, and 33% in the Inuvialuit Region.
Factors associated with food insecurity
Which characteristics are most associated with food insecurity? A logistic regression was estimated to simultaneously assess the relationship between a number of sociodemographic factors and food insecurity, including demographic characteristics; living arrangements and household crowding; education and labour force status; income; family ties; and geography (see Table A1 in the supplementary information section for a complete list of bivariate relationships between all explanatory variables and food insecurity). Results from this model are presented as predicted probabilities. A probability of 1 should be interpreted as a 100% chance of experiencing food insecurity, while a probability of 0 indicates a 0% chance.
Demographic characteristics and living situations
Research has shown that food insecurity tends to be higher among women than men.Note 19 Similarly, the results of the multivariate model show differences in food insecurity between men and women (Table 2).Note 20 More specifically, Inuit women aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat had a significantly higher probability of living in a food insecure household—56% versus 47% for Inuit men—even after controlling for factors such as living arrangements, educational and labour force status, income, family ties and geography.
|25 to 34||0.511Note *|
|35 to 54||0.549Note *|
|55 and over (ref.)||0.401|
|Couples without children (ref.)||0.349|
|Couples with children||0.517Note *|
|Lone parents||0.560Note *|
|With relatives||0.585Note *|
|One person or less per room (ref.)||0.483|
|More than one person per room||0.560Note *|
|Did not complete high school||0.547Note *|
|Completed high school (ref.)||0.449|
|Labour force status|
|Not in the labour force||0.577Note *|
|Total household income|
|Below median income||0.606Note *|
|Above or equal to median income (ref.)||0.424|
|Strength of extended family ties|
|Moderate to very weak family ties||0.656Note *|
|Strong or very strong family ties (ref.)||0.458|
|Rural areas||0.545Note *|
|Small population centres (ref.)||0.447|
Source: Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2012.
With regard to age, research has found that older individuals are less likely to live in a food insecure household.Note 21 Similarly, among Inuit adults, the probabilities of experiencing food insecurity were higher for those aged 25 to 34 and those aged 35 to 54 compared with the reference category of 55 and over.
Previous research has shown a significant relationship between food insecurity and household type.Note 22 In particular, the presence of children as well as lone-parent situations have been found to be associated with food insecurity.
The multivariate results confirm this relationship. Among Inuit adults living in Inuit Nunangat, lone parents (56%) and couples with children (52%) had a significantly greater predicted probability of living in a food insecure household than couples without children (35%). The probability of living in a food insecure household was also significantly greater for individuals who lived with relatives (59%).Note 23 Living alone, however, was not associated with a higher probability of experiencing food insecurity once all other factors were considered.
Another housing-related factor associated with food insecurity is living in a crowded dwelling.Note 24 According to data from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), 39% of Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat lived in a crowded dwelling compared with 4% of the non-Aboriginal population in Canada.Note 25 Among Inuit aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat, the probability of living in a food insecure household was significantly higher for those living with more than one person per room compared with those not in a crowded dwelling (56% versus 48%). Because living in a crowded home is associated with many health problems and is directly connected to other social determinants of Inuit healthNote 26, there is no doubt that food insecurity is adding another element of stress to these specific populations.
Education, labour force status, and household income
Educational attainment is another factor that could potentially have an impact on the likelihood of experiencing food insecurity. Since obtaining a high school diploma is often considered the minimal educational requirement to access the labour market,Note 27 workers who do not have a high school diploma have greater difficulty obtaining well-paying jobs; they are also more vulnerable to economic downturns. Education is thus closely related to household food insecurity as it affects employment and income opportunities.
Although the educational attainment of Inuit continues to increase, many Inuit still do not complete high school. According to the 2011 NHS, 41% of Inuit aged 25 to 64 had completed a high school diploma compared with 85% of the non-Aboriginal population. Among Inuit adults living in Inuit Nunangat, about 3 in 10 (29%) were high school graduates.
The results of this analysis show that completing high school is significantly associated with a lower probability of living in a food insecure household. Among Inuit aged 25 and over in Inuit Nunangat, the probability of experiencing food insecurity was 45% for those who had completed high school compared with 55% for those who had not completed high school, even after controlling for other factors.
Research has shown that labour market status can be associated with poorer social and health outcomes.Note 28 As a result, one can expect that being employed may lower the probability of experiencing food insecurity. The multivariate results support this notion. Inuit adults 25 and older who were employed were less likely to live in a food insecure household compared with those who were unemployed (43% versus 77%). At the same time, the probability of experiencing food insecurity among those not in the labour force, compared to individuals who were employed, was also significantly greater at 58%.
Existing research has also shown that lower household income is associated with a greater likelihood of food insecurity.Note 29 This is due to the fact that food insecurity results from the inability to obtain food because of financial hardship. For many Aboriginal people living in the North, the effects of the high cost of food and the high cost of living in general are intensified by lower income. According to the 2011 NHS, Inuit aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat had a median household income (after tax and adjusted for household size) of $31,400, whereas the median household income of non-Aboriginal people in Canada was $40,200.
The multivariate results in this study confirm this relationship. After controlling for other factors, Inuit aged 25 and over who had a household income below the median had a 61% probability of living in a food insecure household compared with 42% for those who had a household income at or above the median.Note 30
Family ties and geography
Family and community are central to Inuit identity and culture,Note 31 and may be another important factor in terms of their association with food insecurity. Having a stronger social support system may lower the probability of experiencing food insecurity. In the APS, family ties are defined as the reported strength of family ties among family members living in a different household but in the same community.
The results of this study show the importance of extended family ties as a potential source of support. Among Inuit adults aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat, those with strong or very strong extended family ties have a significantly lower probability of living in a food insecure household compared to those with weaker family tiesNote 32 (46% versus 66%).
The remote location of many communities in Inuit Nunangat and the costs associated with the transportation of perishable and nutritious food are important considerations when examining food insecurity. Many Inuit communities have only one grocery store, which makes it difficult to access food. Moreover, access to employment opportunities may be more limited in smaller communities.Note 33The geography variable refers to the population centre size from the 2011 NHS, which compares rural areas (less than 1,000 people) versus small population centres (1,000 to 29,999).Note 34 Results show that Inuit adults living in a rural area have a significantly higher probability of living in a food insecure household compared to those in small population centres (55% versus 45%) after controlling for other factors.
Food insecurity and selected health outcomes
This section focuses on some of the possible relationships between experiencing food insecurity and particular health outcomes. This is important as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (the national organization dedicated to the protection and advancement of the rights and interests of Inuit in Canada) has identified food insecurity as one of the important social determinants of Inuit health.Note 35 Furthermore, existing research has shown that poor health can be a barrier to food security, as well as an outcome of being food insecure. Food insecurity is related to inadequate nutrition, which can have serious physical and mental health implications.Note 36 In addition, research on food insecurity in the Aboriginal population found that those individuals who lived in a food insecure household were more likely to have poor perceived health and high stress.Note 37
For the purpose of this paper, the relationship between food insecurity and health is examined by focusing on the following health outcomes: 1) self-rated general health (those who reported their overall health as “good”, “fair” or “poor” as opposed to “very good” or “excellent”);Note 38 2) being diagnosed with at least one chronic condition; and 3) self-rated mental health (proportion who said that their mental health was “good”, “fair” or “poor”, as opposed to “very good” or “excellent”).
According to the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, several health problems were more prevalent among Inuit adults in Inuit Nunangat who lived in a food insecure household (Chart 2). For example, the bivariate results show that among Inuit aged 25 and over, those in a food insecure household were significantly more likely to report their health in less positive terms (“good”, “fair” or “poor” instead of “excellent” or “very good”) than those who did not experience food insecurity (70% versus 57%). This difference in health status remained significant even when the effects of age, sex, education, labour, household income and crowding were taken into account (Table 3).
Data table for Chart 2
|Health outcomes||Food secure||Food insecure|
|Good/fair/poor mental healthData table Note 1||43.5||58.6Note *|
|At least one chronic condition||39.7||46.3|
|Good/fair/poor general healthData table Note 1||57.4||70.4Note *|
|Good/fair/poor general healthTable 3 Note 1||At least one chronic condition||Good/fair/poor mental healthTable 3 Note 1|
|Food secure (ref.)||0.573||0.361||0.443|
|Food insecure||0.685Note *||0.451Note *||0.578Note *|
Source: Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2012.
The same finding is true for self-reported mental health. Among Inuit adults aged 25 and over in Inuit Nunangat, 59% of those who were in a food insecure household reported lower levels of mental health (“good”, “fair” or “poor” instead of “excellent” or “very good”). Among Inuit adults in a food secure household, the proportion that reported their mental health in such terms was lower, at 44%. When other factors were considered, Inuit adults who lived in a food insecure household still had a significantly higher probability of describing their mental health as good, fair or poor.Finally, the bivariate results indicate that there was no significant difference in the prevalence of at least one chronic condition between people living in food secure and food insecure households. However, this difference becomes significant in the multivariate model that controls for age, sex, education, labour force status and household income, as well as crowding. As seen in Table 3, Inuit adults in a food insecure household had a 45% probability of being diagnosed with at least one chronic condition compared with 36% for those in a food secure household.
Food insecurity is more prevalent among the Aboriginal population than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, especially for those in remote and Northern communities. Furthermore, food insecurity is an important public health issue that has been shown to contribute to a number of outcomes including physical and mental health.
This paper provides a more detailed examination of food insecurity among Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat—a group that has been shown to have higher rates of food insecurity. In 2012, more than one-half (52%) of Inuit adults aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat lived in a household that experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months.
Several characteristics are associated with food insecurity. Inuit women were more likely to live in a food insecure household even after controlling for other factors. Another important factor associated with a higher probability of experiencing food insecurity is living arrangements, especially the presence of children in the home, being a lone parent, and living with relatives. In addition, Inuit living in a crowded home had a greater probability of living in a food insecure household.
The findings also highlight the importance of education, employment and household income. For example, Inuit adults aged 25 and over who completed high school had a lower probability of living in a food insecure household while the same was true for employed Inuit. In addition, Inuit adults whose household income was below the median were 18 percentage points more likely to live in a food insecure household than those whose household income was equal or above to the median.
Furthermore, the results also show that a stronger social support system is significantly associated with a lower probability of experiencing food insecurity. Among Inuit adults aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat, those with strong or very strong extended family ties were significantly less likely to live in a food insecure household than those with weaker family ties.
This paper also examined the relationship between food insecurity and selected health outcomes. Inuit adults in Inuit Nunangat who lived in a food insecure household were significantly more likely to describe their health, including mental health, as “good”, “fair” or “poor” (as opposed to “excellent” or “very good”). In addition, the prevalence of being diagnosed with a chronic condition is significantly associated with food insecurity. Inuit adults living in a food insecure household were more likely to report being diagnosed with at least one chronic condition than those in a food secure home.
The results of this study do not provide definitive answers about the determinants of food insecurity as no causality can be implied. Furthermore, it is also important to note that the food security module used in the Aboriginal Peoples Survey does not include questions related to access to traditional Inuit country food or initiatives such as community freezers, which would likely be important in determining overall food security for Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat. Nonetheless, this study’s results reveal the important characteristics associated with food insecurity among Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat, as well as the relationship between food insecurity and health.
Paula Arriagada is a research analyst with the Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division at Statistics Canada.
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The 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS) is a national survey of First Nations people living off reserve, Métis, and Inuit aged 6 and over. The 2012 APS was the fourth cycle of the survey and focused on the topics of education, employment and health. It also collected information on language, income, housing and mobility.
The survey was carried out by Statistics Canada with funding provided by three federal departments: Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Health Canada, and Employment and Social Development Canada. For information on survey design, target population, survey concepts, and response rates, consult the Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 2012: Concepts and Methods Guide.
APS data are well-suited for the purposes of this study as the large Inuit sample allows for an in-depth analysis. In this case, the analysis is based on a sample of 2,002 Inuit aged 25 and over living in Inuit Nunangat. Other existing surveys that ask questions about food insecurity often have a smaller sample of Aboriginal people—information therefore often cannot be disaggregated for each of the three Aboriginal identity groups: First Nations people, Métis, and Inuit.
The household food security questions in the Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS) originate from the U.S. Household Food Security Survey Module Six-Item Short Form. The following questions are used:
Q1. The food that [you/you and other household members] bought just didn’t last, and there wasn’t any money to get more. Was that often true, sometimes, true, or never true in the past 12 months?
Q2. [You/you and other household members] couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals. In the past 12 months was that often true, sometimes true, or never true?
Q3. In the past 12 months, did [you/you and other household members] ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money to buy food?
Q3a. How often did this happen – almost every month, some months but not every month, or in only 1 or 2 months?
Q4. In the past 12 months, did you [personally] ever eat less than you felt you should because there wasn’t enough money to buy food?
Q5. In the past 12 months, were you [personally] ever hungry but didn’t eat because you couldn’t afford enough food?
It is important to note that although questions 4 and 5 include the text “did you [personally],” the answer to this question may have been provided by a member of the household other than the respondent.
The level of food security in the household is derived from the questions above. Responses of “often” or “sometimes” to questions 1 and 2, and “yes” to questions 3, 4 and 5 are coded as affirmative (yes). Responses of “almost every month” and “some months but not every month” to question 3a are coded as affirmative (yes). The sum of affirmative responses to the six questions in the module determines the category to which a respondent is classified in terms of food insecurity (see below).
Food security categories
Scores 0-1: High or marginal food security
Scores 2-4: Low food security
Scores 5-6: Very low food security
For the purposes of this paper, the food security status of households with scores of 0 or 1 is described as food secure and the two categories of “low food security” and “very low food security” are combined and referred to as food insecure.
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The food insecurity module used in the 2012 Aboriginal Peoples Survey (APS) does not ask directly about children’s food insecurity.Note 39 However, some data on children’s hunger status are available from the 2006 Aboriginal Peoples Survey and the 2006 Aboriginal Children’s Survey (ACS).
According to data from the 2006 APS, close to one-third (30%) of Inuit children aged 6 to 14 in Canada had at some point experienced being hungry because the family had run out of food or money to buy food.Note 40 In Nunavut, nearly 4 in 10 (39%) Inuit children had experienced hunger; the figures were 33% for Inuit children in Nunavik, 30% in Nunatsiavut, and 12% in the Inuvialuit Region.
Furthermore, among Inuit children aged 6 to 14 who had experienced hunger, nearly one-quarter (24%) reported that this happened regularly at the end of the month, while an additional 21% had experienced hunger more than once a month.
Similarly, data from the 2006 ACS showed that hunger was also a significant problem among younger Inuit children. Specifically, about 1 in 4 (24%) Inuit children aged 2 to 5 in Canada were reported to have experienced hunger by their parents. In Inuit Nunangat, the prevalence of hunger rose to 32%.Note 41
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