Food insecurity affects 1.15 million -- or one in six -- Canadian children under age 18. But why? And what can we do about it?
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since we wrote this article, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened existing food insecurity for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. We spoke to community members in Birch Narrows Dene Nation and Ahtahkakoop First Nation to learn how the pandemic has affected them, and what they are doing in response. Read their stories here: Birch Narrows Dene Nation | Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation
Why is there food insecurity in Canada?
It’s hard to believe there are children in Canada who go hungry. But sadly it’s true. According to Statistics Canada, food insecurity affects 1.15 million -- or one in six -- Canadian children under age 18. That number has been on the rise since 2007 (1).
Food security exists “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
Like you, we believe that one child going hungry is too many. But why does it happen?
Household food insecurity is strongly linked to poverty in Canada. 70% of households who rely on social assistance in Canada are food insecure. But it also greatly affects a significant portion of the Canadian workforce. 60% of food-insecure households rely on wages and salaries as their main source of income (2). Families working low-wage jobs simply can’t earn enough to put good food on the table.
Indigenous communities are hard hit
Indigenous communities in Canada have faced significant and ongoing challenges since European settlers arrived and established colonies on Indigenous territories. The loss of land rights, outlawing of Indigenous practices and languages, and discrimination towards Indigenous people have perpetuated a food insecurity crisis with serious implications for health and well-being.
The household food insecurity rate for Inuit is the highest amongst any Indigenous population living in an industrialized country, with over two in three Inuit children experience food insecurity (3).
The legacy of residential schools
The legacy of residential schools, where children were taken forcibly from their homes, is just one example of the deliberate destruction of Indigenous culture, language and identity.
“Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was not done to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.” (4)
These broken links included narratives and traditional practices for accessing food. In an article by Food Secure Canada (5), the following excerpt highlights the impact of residential school survivors losing their connection to traditional food practices:
“If fortunate enough to return home, many survivors spoke of the inability to readjust to the life and language of the reserve. Many were ‘forgetful of traditional ways and foods’ (Truth and Reconciliation Report, p. 103). With a strict policy of acculturation and assimilation at the residential schools, students were stripped of their identity and linguistic heritage. One survivor shared, ‘I can’t cut up caribou meat; I can’t cut up moose meat; work with fish and speak my language. So I was starting to become alienated from my parents and my grandparents; everything.’”
These injustices have been compounded by the ongoing loss of rights to traditional territories and resources, and public opinion, laws and regulations that continue to make engaging in traditional practices difficult, and put significant pressure on Indigenous hunting and fishing.
With the loss of traditional food access and practices, many Indigenous families turn to commercial grocery stores where they are often met with high prices for nutritious food, particularly in remote areas. Without significant economic opportunity, or benefit from traditional territories’ natural resources, the cycle of poverty and food insecurity is difficult to overcome.
What can we do together?
Change needs to happen on the federal, provincial, and community level. Canada faces a multitude of obligations to address food insecurity here at home. From committing to the Sustainable Development Goals to end hunger in all its forms by 2030, to obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, government action and leadership is required.
But individual Canadians can and should play a big role too. By supporting community-led initiatives in Indigenous communities in Canada, you can help families and communities provide healthy school meals, make local and fresh food affordable and accessible, and revitalize traditional knowledge sharing between children and Elders.
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