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Nicola Moore harvests vegetables from her community garden plot on Sept 28 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Food insecurity has become an even greater crisis amid the pandemic, with far-reaching consequences for the growing number of Canadians who experience it, according to a new report from the non-profit Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC).

The report, published Tuesday, reveals that food insecurity is hurting Canadians' physical and mental health, social life and ability to find work.

“It’s not just about missing food – so material deprivation obviously leads to people not having enough money to buy food – but that lack of income and lack of being able to access food has huge ramifications in other parts of people’s lives,” said CFCC chief executive officer Nick Saul.

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Before the pandemic, an estimated 4.5 million Canadians experienced marginal, moderate and severe food insecurity, which CFCC defines as having inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. According to Statistics Canada data in May, 14.6 per cent of survey respondents, or one in seven people, reported experiencing measures of moderate to severe food insecurity, up from 10.5 per cent from results in 2017-18.

Valerie Tarasuk, a principal investigator of the Canadian food insecurity policy research team PROOF, who was not involved in the CFCC study, said that amounted to "a significant increase – an alarming increase.” With some provinces in the second wave of the pandemic, Dr. Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, added, “there’s nothing in the picture to make me think that the situation has gotten better.”

The CFCC report surveyed 561 individuals across the country who experience food insecurity. For 81 per cent of them, it has had a negative impact on their physical health. Many said they have trouble managing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, and some revealed they couldn’t take their prescription medications when they were out of food because they had to be taken with meals.

Seventy-nine per cent of respondents said it took a toll on their mental health, making them feel stressed, anxious and worried. Fifty-seven per cent said it hindered their ability to find and maintain work. Some reported lacking energy to look for jobs because they hadn’t eaten or because they were preoccupied with figuring out where their next meal would come from. Some also said they could not afford transportation, child care, job training and appropriate work attire.

For 58 per cent of respondents, food insecurity limited their ability to participate in social activities and community events.

Nicola Moore of Hamilton said she is constantly thinking about how to feed her family. She makes it a priority to ensure her children have a nutritious, balanced diet. But doing so can be very stressful, she said.

As a single parent of three children, Ms. Moore works as a singer and a peer advocate at the Hamilton Community Food Centre. Her budget allows for about $120 a week for groceries, half of which she spends on diapers and baby formula for her youngest child. While that doesn’t require her family to skip meals, it does mean Ms. Moore expends an enormous amount of energy weighing what she can buy, searching for sales, planning meals and growing her own food.

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“In general, I’m a joyful person, but I’m not happy about how I have to buy my groceries and I’m not happy about the quality of food that I might have to afford each week,” she said.

The CFCC report sets out policy recommendations that involve setting targets and improving measurements of food insecurity, enhancing income supports, boosting social programs and taking steps to ensure equitable access to food, as rates of food insecurity are particularly high among Northern communities and Black Canadians. Many of these recommendations echo those of a report from the Daily Bread Food Bank in July.

Dr. Tarasuk said the need to adopt evidence-based policies for tackling food insecurity is urgent; simply providing more funding to food banks and local food organizations won’t fix the problem.

“We need to see [the growing use of these food agencies] as a canary in a coal mine,” she said. “They’re a signal – and they’ve always been a signal – of what’s not working in Canada.”

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