Among the most essential determinants of our health is food. Only air and water are more vital.
At a bare minimum, we need enough food to ensure we don’t starve, and we also need enough of all the right components (protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals) to keep us healthy. Starvation and malnutrition, it goes without saying, are bad for our health.
In Canada, it is almost unheard of to starve and even severe malnutrition is rare. But while we might not see starvation, Canada is not immune to hunger and malnutrition. We have plenty of both, and the long-term impacts on health and societal well-being are considerable.
But the extent of food insecurity in Canada and its health and social costs are not always fully appreciated. Food security is defined by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization as “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
Conversely, “food insecurity occurs when food quality and/or quantity are compromised,” according to Statistics Canada, which measures food insecurity routinely. In the most recent assessment, for 2011-12, it reported that one in 12 households — more than one million Canadian households — experienced food insecurity, with one in 40 households experiencing severe food insecurity.
Parents protect their children from food insecurity, but nonetheless, almost one in 20 households with children — nearly 200,000 households — experienced food insecurity.
But this is the average. It is much worse among lone-parent households (one in every 20 households), with almost one in four such households experiencing food insecurity, and one in 15 experiencing severe food insecurity, which means “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns.” The proportions in B.C. are much the same, with almost 20,000 lone-parent households experiencing food insecurity.
Statistics Canada recognizes that food insecurity is “associated with a range of poor physical and mental-health outcomes.” In children, hunger is causally associated with poorer health and the development of several chronic health conditions.
The impacts are wider than health effects alone and are particularly troubling for children.
In a 2013 report on food security, the Conference Board of Canada noted: “Diet-deprived children are less able to concentrate and perform well at school, thus threatening their opportunity to gain an education and vital skills for life.” That means they will find it harder to find a job and stay out of poverty, and so the cycle of poverty and all its health and economic costs continues.
Food is not only a necessity, it is a right under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other international conventions that Canada has signed. Yet since the first food bank in B.C. opened more than 30 years ago, they have become a permanent fixture. Which means that hunger and malnutrition have become accepted as a permanent feature of Canadian society and we have established an institutionalized charitable response.
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, in his 2013 report on Canada to the UN Human Rights Council, noted that while “Canada has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food … Canada does not currently afford constitutional or legal protection of the right to food.” In such a rich country and province, this is embarrassing.
What can we do about it? It’s not rocket science. In the area of homelessness, we have recognized that the answer to homelessness is … housing, and we have adopted a Housing First strategy. Well, the answer to hunger and food insecurity is food. We need a Food First strategy.
When B.C. finally joins all the other provinces in adopting a poverty-reduction strategy, it might want to take a leaf from the Housing First approach and become the first province to proclaim food to be a fundamental human right and adopt a Food First strategy, guaranteeing the right to food security, particularly for children.
The societal benefits in improved health and well-being, improved levels of learning and human development and improved economic productivity would be significant.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria's school of public health and social policy.