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Financial empowerment interventions help but more needs to be done to reduce food insecurity 

31 May 2022
Because income is the main determinant of food security, tax filing and benefit services are useful – but only to a point. When the income supports we are connecting people to are inadequate to meet basic needs, financial empowerment interventions are not a sufficient response to prevent food insecurity.

In 2020, Canada’s poverty rate plummeted to 6.4 per cent of the population, (down from 10.3 per cent in 2019), largely because pandemic benefits increased incomes for millions of people. Despite this, the rate of food insecurity – defined as inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints – increased from 10.8 per cent to 11.2 per cent of Canadians. At the beginning of the pandemic, the need for food banks exploded as millions of Canadians lost their jobs and as services people with low incomes relied on to help meet basic needs were shuttered.

While responses to food insecurity often involve providing people with food through food banks and meal programs, for example, food insecurity is, at its core, an income security problem. Research shows food charity has little impact on people’s levels of food insecurity and that the most effective policy response is to increase people’s incomes. Indeed, the Canada Child Benefit in 2016 led to a 30 per cent reduction in severe food insecurity among low-income families with children.

Provincial and territorial social assistance and disability payments for working-age adults without children do not come close to covering basic needs – like food – for most of the Canadians who access them, falling as low as 34 per cent of the poverty line. Indeed, 60 per cent of social assistance recipients are food insecure. Rising inflation is exacerbating this situation, as wages are not keeping up and social assistance rates are not indexed to inflation in most provinces with the notable exception of Quebec and New Brunswick. As the cost of living rises across the country, food is the first basic need people will cut.

Advocates have long said that Canada has a serious income-support sufficiency problem. As economists warn that high inflation may not be short-lived, governments will need to think about how to better support the millions of Canadians struggling to put food on the table. 

Until then, financial empowerment supports can help people to access the benefits available to them but can’t fill the gap when those benefits fall short and stomachs go empty.  To end food insecurity in Canada, we need provincial and territorial income support programs that are adequate to cover basic needs and fully indexed to inflation to prevent erosion over time. 

As food prices mount, now is a good time to call or email your MPP or MLA to let them know that hunger is not an acceptable policy option and it’s time to raise the rates for social assistance recipients.