Food insecurity touches at least one in every six households in New Brunswick. It takes many forms: anxiety about running out of food, missing meals, and not being able to afford food.
NB-IRDT platform research featured prominently in a May 20 Food for All NB webinar called “What the Food?”.
The first in a series on New Brunswick’s food sector, the talk was titled “Household Food Insecurity & New Brunswick” and featured research by Dr. Valerie Tarasuk of the University of Toronto, Dr. Herb Emery, Vaughan Chair in Regional Economics, and Dr. Ted McDonald at the University of New Brunswick and on the prevalence of food insecurity in New Brunswick.
Budget volatility and income inadequacy pose a major threat to our most vulnerable. Food insecurity targets groups in society already impacted by social and economic challenges. Lower educated people, single people, renters, Indigenous people, and families with young children are at a higher risk to be food insecure. But food insecurity is not unique to New Brunswick – in fact, it is a national issue, with every eighth household falling victim.
Food insecurity affects the working poor
While food insecurity is a national issue, some provincial populations are more at risk than others. Food insecurity boils down to income. As net exporter of educated, higher income segments of our population, New Brunswick is left with a larger proportion of lower wage jobs and less educated, less experienced workers. Most food insecure households are not on social welfare programs but rather out on the front lines working lower wage jobs.
The link between tobacco and food insecurity
The Tarasuk et al. paper, titled “Tobacco Use and Food Insecurity in New Brunswick,” makes an important connection between tobacco use and insecurity. The research finds that the likelihood of a household being food insecure is greater when there are smokers. Additionally, it suggests that the effects of food insecurity are more damaging to health and well-being than the effects posed by tobacco.
The research indicates individuals who find themselves in food insecure situations may be more likely to engage in risky behaviour like smoking. The addictive qualities of smoking can lead households to buy cigarettes instead of food when money is tight. Although tobacco tax is meant to discourage consumption, the addictive pull of tobacco appears to outweigh the disincentive posed by higher prices. Results show that almost 40 per cent of food insecure households in New Brunswick have a smoker in the house.
Food insecurity isn’t about food, it’s about income
Food insecurity is about more than being able to afford food. It’s about being unable to pay bills, rent, buy prescriptions, and much more. Food insecurity is a red flag for health issues. “Almost every health condition you can imagine is present in people in food insecure situations, with the exception of cancer,” says Dr. Tarasuk. From poor cardiovascular health to several chronic health conditions in adults, to poorer development and learning and impaired disease management in children, food insecurity is a serious health threat. The negative health impacts of food insecurity outweigh those related to smoking.
The simple solution to combating food insecurity is to help lower wage workers improve their income.
Food banks and welfare don’t work.
Canada’s historical response to food insecurity has been to set up community food banks. However, research shows that these centres reach only a fraction of the people who are food insecure. Welfare programs only apply to a small portion of the population and are not available to those who work to make more income.
It is important to note that seniors have the lowest rate of food insecurity due to Canada’s social programs that become available once an individual reaches age 65. The Old Age Security (OAS) benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) provide a consistent source of income to those who need it.
We know that only a small portion relies on social assistance programs—they do little to help the largest segment of food insecure people. Policy makers should consider restructuring how social benefits are paid – as they were with seniors – to provide more predictable and stable income to those who need it most. As with guaranteed income supplements for seniors, a guaranteed plan such as an income-tested universal basic income could help alleviate food insecurity in the low-income, working population.
Currently administration costs for the OAS/GIS represent five per cent of the program costs, while social assistance programs account for around 40 per cent of program costs. The efficiency savings alone would represent a portion of the program costs.
It’s worth a serious conversation.