Health at a Glance
Food insecurity in Canada

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by Shirin Roshanafshar and Emma Hawkins

Release date: March 25, 2015 Correction date: September 7, 2018

Correction notice

Several parts of the article were modified in order to emphasize that the rates of food insecurity are related to the household and not individuals. For a detailed list of what was changed, please refer to the Note to readers section in the publication.

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Highlights

  • Each year, between 2007 and 2012, household food insecurity rates fluctuated between 7.6% and 8.5% in Canada. Food insecure households do not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money.
  • The most recent statistics indicate that in 2011–2012, 8.3% of Canadian households experienced food insecurity.
  • Nunavut had the highest rate of food insecurity (36.7%), over four times the Canadian average (8.3%) in 2011–2012.
  • In 2011–2012, the rate of food insecurity was more than three times higher in households where government benefits were the main source of income (21.4%) compared with households with an alternate main source of income (6.1%).
  • Among various household types, lone-parent families with children under 18 reported the highest rate of household food insecurity, at 22.6% in 2011–2012.

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Food insecurity exists within a household when one or more members do not have access to the variety or quantity of food that they need due to lack of money.Note 1Note 2 In 2012, Canadian food bank usage continued to increase across the country, indicating that some households still experienced difficulties putting food on the table.Note 3

Researchers have found that people who experience food insecurity also tend to report:

  • poor or fair health
  • poor functional health, or an inability to perform key activities due to health problems
  • long-term physical and/or mental disabilities that limit activity at home, work or school
  • multiple chronic conditions
  • major depression
  • a perceived lack of social support, such as someone to confide in, count on, or go to for advice.Note 4Note 5

This article describes food insecurity in Canada, including various associated factors such as income source, number of children in the household and household type. Data from the 2007 to 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS)Note 6 were used with a focus on 2011–2012, to highlight rates of food insecurity in Canada.

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Defining food insecurity

Respondents answered 18 questions related to the food security situation of their household in the previous 12 months. These households were then placed in one of the following groups:

  1. Food secure: there was no (or only one) indication of difficulty with access to food because of inadequate income.
  2. Moderately food insecure: the quality and/or quantity of food consumed were inadequate.
  3. Severely food insecure: respondents indicated that they reduced their food intake and/or experienced disrupted eating patterns.

The categories of “moderate” and “severe” food insecurity were combined in one category and are referred to as “food insecurity” throughout the article.

All of the above definitions are adopted from Health Canada’s model of food security status.Note 1

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Food insecurity in Canada, the provinces and territories

Household food insecurityNote 7 rates fluctuated between 7.6% and 8.5% every year from 2007 to 2012 (data not shown).

In 2011–2012Note 8, approximately 1.1 million Canadian households (8.3% of all households) experienced food insecurity. Of these, more Canadian households experienced moderate food insecurity (5.8%) than severe food insecurity (2.5%).

The territories had considerably higher rates of food insecurity than the provinces in 2011–2012. Specifically, Nunavut had the highest rate at 36.7%, which was over four times the Canadian average (8.3%). The Northwest Territories had the second highest rate at 13.7%, followed by Yukon at 11.4%. Among the provinces, Nova Scotia (11.9%), Prince Edward Island (10.6%) and New Brunswick (10.2%) had the highest rates of food insecurity (Chart 1).

Chart 1 Percentage of food insecure households in Canada, provinces and territories, 2011–2012

Data table for Chart 1
Chart 1
Percentage of food insecure households in Canada, provinces and territories, 2011–2012

Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of food insecure households in Canada Percent, Lower 95% confidence interval and Upper 95% confidence interval (appearing as column headers).
Percent Lower 95% confidence interval Upper 95% confidence interval
Canada 8.3 8.05 8.66
Newfoundland and Labrador 7.6 6.42 9.05
Prince Edward Island 10.6 8.71 12.75
Nova Scotia 11.9 10.47 13.40
New Brunswick 10.2 9.10 11.35
Quebec 8.1 7.48 8.70
Ontario 8.2 7.73 8.76
Manitoba 7.9 6.85 9.16
Saskatchewan 8.1 6.79 9.70
Alberta 8.1 7.28 9.10
British Columbia 8.2 7.45 9.11
Yukon 11.4 9.68 13.49
Northwest Territories 13.7 10.97 17.08
Nunavut 36.7 31.08 42.70

Food insecurity and source of income

Although low income contributes to food insecurityNote 5, there are other important factors, such as a household’s main source of income. Notably, in 2011–2012, households that relied on government benefits as their main source of income had much higher rates of food insecurity (21.4%) than households with an alternate main source of income (6.1%).

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Main source of household income

For this article, income source is organized into two categories:

  1. Government benefits – where the main source of household income is one of the following (6% of households in 2011–2012):
    • employment insurance
    • worker’s compensation
    • benefits from Canada or Quebec Pension Plan
    • Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement
    • provincial/municipal social assistance or welfare
    • Child Tax Benefit
  2. Alternate (other) source of income – where the main source of household income is one of the following (94% of households in 2011–2012):
    • wages and salaries
    • income from self-employment
    • dividends and interest (e.g., on bonds and savings)
    • job-related retirement pensions, superannuation and annuities
    • RRSP/RRIF (Registered Retirement Savings Plan/Registered Retirement Income Fund)
    • child support
    • alimony

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Low-income households were examined to better understand the relationship between food insecurity and the main source of household income. Low-income households are those in which the total income falls within the lowest 10% of all Canadian households.

Every year from 2007 to 2012, low-income households where government benefits were the main source of income were more likely to experience food insecurity than those with an alternate main source of income (data not shown). Among low-income households in 2011–2012, 41.4% of those with government benefits as their main source of income experienced food insecurity, while 23.0% of those with an alternate main source of income experienced food insecurity.

Child food insecurity

Food insecurity can be harmful to children’s healthy growth and development. Living in a food-insecure environment can pose numerous health risks for children due to a lower consumption of fruits and vegetables, milk products, or other important sources of vitamins and minerals. Such deficiencies may lead to serious health problems like obesity, developmental abnormalities, or a compromised immune system.Note 9Note 10

Other research suggests that adults will often attempt to protect their children from food insecurity by reducing the variety and quantity of their own meals to prevent children from going hungry.Note 11 This is consistent with findings from this study, where in 2011–2012, of the nearly 4 million households with children, 9.8% reported adult food insecurityNote 12Note 13 and 4.9% reported child food insecurityNote 14. During this same period, “government benefit” households reported over seven times higher rate of child food insecurity (26.6%) than households with an alternate source of income (3.5%).

Food insecurity and the number of children in the household

Households with children experienced a higher rate of food insecurity than those without children. In 2011–2012, 10.3% of households with children and 7.5% of households without children were food insecure.Note 15

Regardless of the number of children in the household, rates of food insecurity were always higher for households with government benefits as their main source of income, compared with households reporting an alternate main source of income.

As mentioned, research has shown that the protective behaviour of adults towards their children results in higher rates of food insecurity among adults. However, this protective effect is less evident in households with two or more children. In this study, the gap between adult and child food insecurity was greatest in households with only one child (Chart 2).

Chart 2 Adult and child food insecurity by main source of household income and number of children in the household, Canada, 2011–2012

Data table for Chart 2
Chart 2
Adult and child food insecurity by main source of household income and number of children in the household, Canada, 2011–2012
Table summary
This table displays the results of Adult and child food insecurity by main source of household income and number of children in the household Percent, Lower 95% confidence interval and Upper 95% confidence interval (appearing as column headers).
Percent Lower 95% confidence interval Upper 95% confidence interval
Adult food insecurity
No children Other income source 5.3 4.95 5.57
Government benefits 17.9 16.72 19.05
1 child Other income source 7.7 6.83 8.55
Government benefits 41.9 35.82 48.22
2 or more children Other income source 7.7 7.04 8.36
Government benefits 45.3 39.55 51.12
Child food insecurity
No children Other income source Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
Government benefits Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable Note ...: not applicable
1 child Other income source 2.8 2.31 3.36
Government benefits 20.9 16.52 26.17
2 or more children Other income source 4.0 3.59 4.53
Government benefits 32.4 26.55 38.86

Food insecurity by household type

Previous research has also shown a strong relationship between food insecurity and household type.Note 16Note 17 Whether individuals live alone, with a significant other, or with children are all factors related to household food insecurity.

Household food insecurity was examined by various household types and sources of income. In every type of household, rates of food insecurity were higher in households where the main source of income was government benefits (Chart 3).

Chart 3 Food insecurity by main source of household income and household type, Canada, 2011–2012

Data table for Chart 3
Chart 3
Food insecurity by main source of household income and household type, Canada, 2011–2012
Table summary
This table displays the results of Food insecurity by main source of household income and household type Government benefits and Other income source, calculated using percent, Lower 95% confidence interval and Upper 95% confidence interval units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Government benefits Other income source
Percent Lower 95% confidence interval Upper 95% confidence interval Percent Lower 95% confidence interval Upper 95% confidence interval
Unattached individual 23.1 21.53 24.75 8.1 7.45 8.76
Couple without child(ren) 7.3 6.16 8.68 2.9 2.55 3.18
Couple with child(ren) under 18 38.0 31.73 44.78 6.3 5.83 6.88
Lone-parent with child(ren) under 18 51.0 45.64 56.41 15.5 13.83 17.37
Other 14.6 10.86 19.46 4.8 3.7 6.1

In 2011–2012, lone-parent families with children under 18 reported the highest rate of household food insecurity at 22.6%. In addition, 11.9% of unattached individuals and 7.1% of couples living with children under 18 experienced household food insecurity. Couples with no children reported the lowest rate of household food insecurity at 3.5%.

Summary

Households that relied on government benefits (e.g., Employment Insurance, Child Tax Benefit, provincial/municipal social assistance or welfare) as their main source of income were over three times more likely to experience food insecurity than those with an alternate main source of income (e.g., salaries and wages, self-employment income, alimony, child support).

Household food insecurity was more common among households with children than those without. Every year from 2007 to 2012, there were more adults than children who experienced food insecurity. In 2011–2012, 10.3% of households with children and 7.5% of households without children were food insecure.

Among various household types in 2011–2012, lone-parent families reported the highest rate of food insecurity, while couples with no children reported the lowest.

Shirin Roshanafshar and Emma Hawkins are analysts with the Health Statistics Division.

The authors wish to thank Jennifer Ali, Teresa Janz, and Lawson Greenberg for their contributions to this article.

Note to readers

Corrections have been made to this product.

Please take note of the following changes:

The first bullet in the “Highlights” section was updated from “Food insecurity rates have remained relatively stable over time. Every year from 2007 to 2012, approximately 5% of Canadian children and 8% of Canadian adults lived in food insecure households. This means that they did not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money.” to “Each year, between 2007 and 2012, household food insecurity rates fluctuated between 7.6% and 8.5% in Canada. Food insecure households do not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money.”

The first two sentences in the “Defining food insecurity” text box were updated from “Respondents answered 18 questions related to the food security situation of their household in the previous 12 months and were placed in one of the following groups:” to “Respondents answered 18 questions related to the food security situation of their household in the previous 12 months. These households were then placed in one of the following groups:”

The first paragraph in the “Food insecurity in Canada, the provinces and territories” section was updated from “About 8% of adults ,  and 5% of children  experienced food insecurity  in Canada each year between 2007 and 2012 (data not shown).” to “Household food insecurity  rates fluctuated between 7.6% and 8.5% every year from 2007 to 2012 (data not shown).”

The first sentence in the second paragraph in the “Food insecurity in Canada, the provinces and territories” section was updated from “In 2011–2012, approximately 1.1 million Canadian households experienced food insecurity.” to “In 2011–2012, approximately 1.1 million Canadian households (8.3% of all households) experienced food insecurity”.

The rate of food insecurity in the last paragraph in the “Food insecurity in Canada, the provinces and territories” section was updated from 12.4% to 11.4%.

Two sentences in the “Main source of household income” text box were updated from “1. Government benefits – where the main source of household income is one of the following:” to “1. Government benefits – where the main source of household income is one of the following (6% of households in 2011–2012):” and from “2. Alternate (other) source of income – where the main source of household income is one of the following:” to “2. Alternate (other) source of income – where the main source of household income is one of the following (94% of households in 2011–2012):”

The last paragraph in the “Child food insecurity” section was updated from “This is consistent with findings from this study, where in 2011–2012, 8.2% of adults and 4.9% of children lived in households that were food insecure. During this same period, children living in “government-benefit households” experienced food insecurity to a much higher degree (26.6%) than children living in households with an alternate source of income (3.5%).” to “This is consistent with findings from this study, where in 2011–2012, of the nearly 4 million households with children, 9.8% reported adult food insecurity, and 4.9% reported child food insecurity. During this same period, “government benefit” households reported over seven times higher rate of child food insecurity (26.6%) than households with an alternate source of income (3.5%).”

The second last sentence in the summary section was updated from “Every year from 2007 to 2012, there were more adults than children who experienced food insecurity. In 2011–2012, 10.2% of households with children and 7.6% of households without children were food insecure.” to “Every year from 2007 to 2012, there were more adults than children who experienced food insecurity. In 2011–2012, 10.3% of households with children and 7.5% of households without children were food insecure.”

Confidence intervals for all charts have been recalculated using bootstrap weights designed for use with household-level variables. No statistical changes resulted from this recalculation, but readers may notice a slight change to some confidence intervals.

We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.

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  • For more statistics and analysis on the health of Canadians and the health care system, visit the Health in Canada module. This module is accessible from our website, under Features.

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