Food insecurity is a social determinant of health that is becoming more prevalent in Canadian society. Food security is an important aspect of public health in which there is growing evidence between the association of food insecurity and poorer health outcomes. According to Raphael (2009), food insecurity can be defined as “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so” (p. 188). One would not think that in a higher income country such as Canada that food insecurity would even be a public health concern, but according to Health Canada (2012) 7.2% of Canadian households were food insecure between the years 2007 and 2008. In addition, food insecurity was positively correlated with lower income households. According to Health Canada (2012) 55.5% of food insecure households main source of income was from social assistance.
Currently, there is growing evidence about the association of food insecurity and adverse health outcomes. Of particular concern is the prevalence of obesity and the amount of overweight individuals in the Aboriginal population. Food insecurity rates in these populations are 3 times higher compared to non-aboriginals (Health Canada, 2012). According to the First Nations Information Governance Centre (2012), approximately 29.9% of 12-17 year olds living on reserve are overweight and 12.8% are obese. This is of concern because obesity is one of the strongest risk factors for Type 2 Diabetes, a chronic disease in which Aboriginals are genetically susceptible to. Although there are many factors to consider when examining causes of obesity in aboriginal populations, it is important to consider the effect food insecurity has on these populations. Many of these individuals are not able to afford healthy food choices such as fruits and vegetables and therefore purchase cheaper food alternatives.
According to Seligman, Bindman, Vittinghoff, Kanaya, & Kushel, (2007) cheaper food alternatives, such as refined grains, added sugars, and added fats tend to be nutritionally poor but calorically dense, which allows individuals to potentially exceed their caloric requirements. This overtime can lead to weight gain and the potential development of Diabetes and other chronic diseases related to obesity. In remote communities the accessibility and affordability of nutritious foods is a challenge to public health due to geographical location. According to Gates et al. (2012) the increasing cost of airfare to ship foods to northern communities impacts the consumption of fruits and vegetables, as these items are often higher in cost compared to other food choices. It is not that these individuals do not choose to eat healthy, but are rather forced to due to the cost of these foods and the economic state they are in. It is difficult to recommend healthy eating practices in order to prevent weight gain and obesity when the population is unable to afford healthier foods. For individuals who do not live in remote communities, the challenge also lies in the affordability of nutritious foods. Therefore public health and policy makers need to examine how to increase income in lower socioeconomic classes before there is a solution to food insecurity in these populations.
There are a number of possible solutions that will improve food insecurity in Canada, but many of these solutions require policy changes at the government level. According to Raphael (2009) one solution is to increase income either through social assistance or minimum wage. By increasing the income level, this will lead to less poverty and allow families to afford healthier food choices. Another solution is to make healthy foods more affordable to Canadians by lowering the cost of such foods. Programs such as the good food box allow individuals with lower incomes to purchase healthy foods at a reduced cost. Raphael (2009) suggests the government adopts a food staples policy. This policy would allow food staples such as milk to be affordable for families with lower incomes. Affordable housing will also improve food security by allowing more money to be available for food. Often for individuals living in poverty shelter is more of a priority then nutritious food. Many of these individuals will access food banks, which will prevent hunger, but often the food available at these food banks are of less nutritional value. Food insecurity is a public health concern in Canada. More evidence is showing a strong relationship between food insecurity and chronic diseases such as Diabetes. Lower income levels are a predictor for food insecurity; therefore income distribution in Canada needs to be addressed at the government level before a long-term solution of food insecurity can be achieved.
First Nations Information Governance Centre. First Nations Longitudinal Health Survey: RHS
Phase 2 (2008/10) Selected Results. Available from: http://www.rhs-ers.ca.
Health Canada. (2012). Household Food Insecurity in 2007-2008:Key Statistics and Graphics.
Retrieved from: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/surveill/nutrition/commun/insecurit/key-stats-
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