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Sharon Johnson, who raised her kids as a single mother on social assistance visiting food banks, looks through grocery flyers at her home in Uniacke Square in Halifax, N.S. on Oct. 23, 2019.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Black Canadians experience food insecurity at nearly twice the rate of white Canadians, even when adjusting for household income, home ownership, immigration status and education, according to a new report.

One of the report’s authors says the findings – based on a survey of 491,400 Canadians – reveal “a very significant problem of racism.”

Rather than focusing exclusively on food banks or school breakfast programs, advocates and researchers say the solution to food insecurity lies in addressing the systemic discrimination that black people face at disproportionately high rates.

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The report, authored by Simran Dhunna and Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto and presented by the non-profit FoodShare, drew from responses from five cycles of the Canada Community Health Survey, conducted by Statistics Canada. It found that while 10 per cent of white households experienced food insecurity, 28.4 per cent of black households did.

While “severe" food insecurity might mean skipping meals entirely or needing to access a food bank, “marginal” food security is worrying about consistent food access.

While home ownership typically offers protection against disruptions such as job loss since a house is an asset that can be borrowed against, that doesn’t appear to be the experience of black homeowners. One of the most striking findings of the report was that black homeowners had the same rate of food insecurity as white renters: 14 per cent. Prof. Tarasuk theorized that this could be due to black people owning homes with mortgages or homes with lower value compared to their white counterparts.

rate of food insecurity

Per cent, in Canada

12.4%

Overall

Black households

28.4%

White households

10%

RACIAL DISPARITY

Black households are...

3.56 times more

likely to experience

food insecurity

than white house-

holds and...

1.88 times more

likely when adjusting

for education, house-

hold makeup, income,

province and immigration

Income strongest link to food insecurity

Average household income

Food-secure households

Food-insecure households

$60 thousand

50

40

30

20

10

0

Black households

White households

vulnerability based on

home ownership status

Percentage of households experiencing food insecurity

25%

20

15

10

5

0

Black

renters

Black

homeowners

White

renters

White

homeowners

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: university of toronto

rate of food insecurity

Per cent, in Canada

12.4%

Overall

Black households

28.4%

White households

10%

RACIAL DISPARITY

Black households are...

3.56 times more

likely to experience

food insecurity

than white house-

holds and...

1.88 times more

likely when adjusting

for education, house-

hold makeup, income,

province and immigration

Income strongest link to food insecurity

Average household income

Food-secure households

Food-insecure households

$60 thousand

50

40

30

20

10

0

Black households

White households

vulnerability based on home ownership status

Percentage of households experiencing food insecurity

25%

20

15

10

5

0

Black

renters

Black

homeowners

White

renters

White

homeowners

john sopinski/the globe and mail

source: university of toronto

rate of food insecurity

RACIAL DISPARITY

Per cent, in Canada

Black households are...

3.56 times more

likely to experience

food insecurity than

white households and...

Overall

12.4%

Black

households

28.4%

1.88 times more

likely when adjusting

for education, house-

hold makeup, income,

province and immigration

White

households

10%

Income strongest link to food insecurity

Average household income

Food-secure households

Food-insecure households

$60 thousand

50

40

30

20

10

0

Black households

White households

vulnerability based on home ownership status

Percentage of households experiencing food insecurity

25%

20

15

10

5

0

Black

renters

Black

homeowners

White

renters

White

homeowners

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: university of toronto

To explain why black people who had the same household income as white people still experienced much higher rates of food insecurity, Leslie Campbell, the director of programs for FoodShare, suggests the quality of their employment might be to blame. Black people are more likely to have precarious employment, or work jobs without benefits, he said, and they have less access to the savings and credit that can help them recover from job loss or unexpected expenses. A large body of research suggests black people in Canada and the U.S. experience high rates of housing and employment discrimination.

"What we’re seeing is a tremendous story of the need for us to start thinking of anti-racism policies as food security policies,” Prof. Tarasuk said.

The solution may lie in studying Canadian seniors.

Sharon Johnson, a 66-year-old Haligonian who is African Nova Scotian, has experienced both ends of the spectrum of food insecurity in her lifetime: severe and marginal.

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Every two weeks, she pores over the weekly flyers, seeing who has a sale on 10-pound bags of potatoes or chicken drumsticks and plans her trips to multiple grocery stores accordingly, careful not to overspend.

She can only occasionally afford a splurge on the expensive items, such as broccoli or oranges, which also happen to be the things she’s always being told she, a person with diabetes, should consume more often.

“Everything healthy is expensive and so that kind of tells me that unless you’re rich or you have a high-end, high-paying job, you’re the only people that are privileged enough to eat healthy,” she said

Still, she says her situation now is a great improvement over what it was decades ago when she was on social assistance and raising three children on her own. Back then, she relied heavily on food banks where highly processed, high-sodium packaged or canned foods were available, but no fresh fruit or vegetables.

Now, with a guaranteed income in the form of Old Age Security, she has more freedom and flexibility in her shopping – and more dignity.

Research published in the Canadian Public Policy journal found that rates of food insecurity drop after individuals turned 65 due to access to Old Age Security. Because of this, those who work in the field of food security champion the introduction of a guaranteed basic income as a solution because it’s universal and would help even those who face systemic discrimination.

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“I think having food programs and access to food banks are solutions to a problem that’s already happened. We need something further upstream,” said Louise Smith, the interim director of Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth. Her Toronto organization serves food to 123 youth a day, and racialized youth are overrepresented in that population.

“It’s really looking at equitable access to basic income and those sorts of things to let people make their own choices around what types of food they would like,” she said.

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