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Volunteers sort donations at the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto on May 19.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 16 per cent of Canadians are living with food insecurity, according to a new report – the third year in a row the rate has remained at record highs.

A University of Toronto report released Tuesday captures food insecurity from 2019 to 2021, and shows that almost six million Canadians in that time were living without adequate access to healthy, nutritious food as a result of financial restraints. The last major status report from Proof – the university’s program that researches food insecurity – in 2017-18 had pegged the rate at that time at 12.7 per cent, and affecting 4.4 million Canadians.

“The thing that smacks you over the head is the persistence of the problem,” said Valerie Tarasuk, lead author of the report, and director of Proof. “We’re talking about a chronic problem.”

The new report, comprised of survey responses from 54,000 households across 10 provinces, includes data up until September, 2021. Because of this, the report does not reflect the impact of the record rates of inflation from the past year.

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“Now, faced with unbelievable increases in basic needs, we have to acknowledge that that situation is going to get even more dire,” Prof. Tarasuk said.

The report also does not include data from several communities that are especially vulnerable to food insecurity: those living on Indigenous reserves, or in the territories. This is because that data were either unavailable or incomplete.

The report reflects the vast disparity in how the problem of food insecurity is experienced from coast to coast.

In Alberta, more than 20 per cent of respondents are living with food insecurity. More than 6 per cent of Albertans reported severe rates of food insecurity, meaning they’ve had to miss meals, or have gone for a day or more without food, because of a lack of income.

Quebec, on the other hand, presents a much more positive picture. There, 13 per cent of households reported having inadequate access to food. And the rate for severe food insecurity was under 3 per cent.

“I think Quebec screams off the page telling us that provincial policies matter,” said Prof. Tarasuk. She said the combination there of policies – from minimum wage to social assistance and child benefit – have most effectively targeted those living on low incomes.

She added that in Quebec, programs such as the child benefit are indexed to inflation, providing an additional layer of protection.

The report also makes other disparities clear. Indigenous communities in particular remain extremely vulnerable. Almost one-third (30.6 per cent) of Indigenous people living off-reserve reported experiencing food insecurity.

And racialized communities, in general, are much more likely to experience food insecurity: Over 22 per cent of Black respondents, for instance, compared with just 13 per cent of white respondents.

Also striking, more than half of those who are food insecure are working. Over 51 per cent of respondents reported experiencing food insecurity, despite earning a wage or salary.

The response from governments so far, said Prof. Tarasuk, has been insufficient. That response most recently has been in the form of donations to food banks or other charities – which she said does little to address the root cause of food insecurity, which is income.

“[Food charities] are not the way forward here,” she said. “We’re deluding ourselves if we think we’re preventing people from going hungry by putting a few million dollars into food banks.”

Paul Taylor, the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a charity aimed at reducing food insecurity, echoed this. He also pointed to the underlying inequalities revealed by the report.

“This research points to the fact that, if you are not white in Canada, your chances of accessing food are more difficult,” he said.

“Those issues, based on systemic racism, systemic anti-Indigeneity, will not be solved by community gardens, by good food boxes, or urban farms,” he said. “These are issues that go far beyond charities and charities’ ability to respond.”

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