‘This is a very serious problem:’ New report shows food insecurity persists in Ontario

A new report by PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research has found rates of food insecurity in Ontario show no signs of declining. Nick Westoll speaks with one of the report's researchers.

A new report looking at three years’ worth of Canadian income data shows rates of food insecurity in Ontario aren’t slowing down.

“This is a chronic problem that year after year we’ve got a very large swath of people in the province and in this country who are struggling to afford the food they need,” Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and the lead investigator with PROOF Food Insecurity Policy Research, told CityNews on Tuesday.

“We know that to be in a severely food insecure household is to be very, very much at risk of health problems and increased health care utilization.”

Using 2019 to 2021 data from Statistics Canada’s income survey, Tarasuk and her colleagues found the following in Ontario over those years with respect to accessing nutritious food:

• 16.1 per cent of all Ontario households were food insecure (approximately 2.3 million residents)
• Nearly half of those households had people in the workforce
• 20.6 per cent Ontario children lived in a food-insecure household (approximately 500,000 children)
• 67 per cent of Ontario households relying on Ontario Works (OW) and/or Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) as the main source of income were food insecure
• 4.6 per cent of all Ontario households had severe food insecurity (missed meals, reduced food intake, days without eating due to lack of money)

“There are households that have reported enough problems that we have reason to believe people in those households went without eating because of a lack of food and a lack of money to afford more, and so this is a very serious problem,” Tarasuk said.

“It’s terrible, I mean it’s absolutely unacceptable, in an affluent society to have anybody who is going hungry without eating because of a lack of money for food.”

When it comes to the statistic involving children, she said it’s unlikely most were going hungry.

“But what it does mean one in five children in this province under the age of 18 are living in a family that is struggling to afford the food they need,” Tarasuk said.

Despite most of the figures not moving in an upward trend, she said there isn’t a decline either – suggesting it’s a chronic problem.

Tarasuk added Quebec’s food insecurity rate was three per cent lower than Ontario, something she attributed to that provincial government’s move to index all social benefits to inflation.

RELATED: Experts say the ongoing need to end food insecurity has intensified amid the COVID-19 pandemic

While Ontario residents receiving ODSP are set to receive a five-per-cent increase in rates this year, it comes after several years of freezes by the Ontario government. In the end, not enough to keep up with rising prices. Also, nothing in terms of increases has been publicly announced for OW recipients.

“[The Ontario government is] still not really committing to indexing, they’re not committing to doing anything about Ontario Works, so if there isn’t any indexation those people are effectively getting poorer,” Tarasuk said.

With inflation soaring in 2022, she said it’s imposing a heavier burden on many.

“The situation is probably even more dire for these families than it was when we recorded the data that has been reported in this report,” Tarasuk said.

In an effort to reduce the amount of food insecurity, she called for increasing social assistance rates as well as boosting Ontario’s minimum wage to, what she called, a proper living wage and increasing the threshold on income taxes so more low-income earners don’t have to pay taxes.

“At a time when health care budgets are going through the roof, we really need to be working upstream to pull back some of that,” Tarasuk said.

“I know that people will hear this and they’ll think, ‘Oh all of that is going to cost money, where is that money going to come from?’ But remember this thing costs the province money in terms of health care dollars right now.”

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