Rising food insecurity is a population health risk, expert warns

A group of schoolchildren eating lunches out of lunchboxes at a table.

With more and more families struggling to afford food, it's time to consider effective food programs, starting with school lunch programs, expert Tina Moffat says.

As increasing food prices put excess pressure on Canadian families, exacerbating the existing issue of food insecurity, it’s time to consider effective school lunch programs, a McMaster expert says.

Not only is inflation impacting the cost of groceries — up more than 10 per cent over the past year according to Statistics Canada — but higher living costs for mean people don’t have as much to spend on food.

“You can’t not pay your rent and you can’t not pay your utility bills,” says Tina Moffat, associate professor in the department of anthropology.

“Food is usually the first thing you’re going to cut back on when money is tight.”

One in six Canadian children lives in a food insecure household, research has previously shown.

And that figure represents an overall average, Moffat notes. “It’s not one in six spread evenly across the country or even across a city or province.” Food insecurity is much higher in northern regions and among Indigenous and Black families, she explains.

The physical impact of food insecurity depends on the context. In Canada, we aren’t seeing the signs of malnutrition you’d see in a place like Nepal for example, where Moffat studied the issue of child malnutrition.

In Canada, the effects more often show up as diet-related diseases like diabetes, or nutritional conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia and obesity.

“Food insecure families will, very rationally, go for foods that will fill the belly and be very satisfying. They are going for items that are more affordable than fruits and vegetables and leans meats, which are being hit the hardest by inflation right now,” Moffat says. “They’re more filling, too, and that way they get more bang for their buck.”

Not only is this a recipe for chronic diseases later in life, but it also establishes relatively unhealthy eating habits and practices in the long term. These, in turn, can become intergenerational, which means it’s even more imperative that people have access to healthy foods, especially early in life.

In Canada, we rely on a charity-based model to address food insecurity, but we don’t face it head on, Moffat says.

She points to countries like France and Japan, where school lunch programs are subsidized. Not only do these programs provide a healthy, reliable meal during the day, they educate children on healthy eating and food culture.

These programs are also universal, not geared just to low-income families, easing some of the burden on parents.

“I think a lot of parents struggle to get a nutritious lunch out — not just the ones who are food insecure,” Moffat says

“Families with two working parents could also benefit from a school meal program that provides a reliable, nutritious meal to children during the day.”

Today’s inflationary environment, coupled with COVID-19 and the cracks it revealed, could make this the perfect time to make a change in Canada, Moffat says.

“We know that not everybody who needs food goes to food banks,” Moffat says. “So right now, food banks are only serving a portion of the people who need them and they can’t keep up. Something has got to give.”

There are worries about bringing food programs to Canada because it diverts attention away from other social supports, Moffat says. But a  school lunch program, done well, would benefit everyone, she says.

“Thinking about food insecurity isn’t just about alleviating poverty. It’s a population health issue that is going to affect generations to come.”