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About 5.1 million Canadians are food insecure, and many of them are struggling with mental health issues. And the pandemic has made the situation worse, according to a report released Wednesday by Statistics Canada.

Food insecurity is closely related to mental health, with up to 40 per cent of food-insecure Canadians reporting struggles with depression, anxiety and a suite of other psychological challenges pre-pandemic. According to the new report, between half and three-quarters of food-insecure Canadians reported poor mental health or anxiety in the past year.

“These results, sadly, absolutely did not surprise me,” said Jennifer Black, professor of food, nutrition and health at the University of British Columbia. “They are extremely consistent with all the data that has been emerging from the pandemic and all the data that had been emerging before the pandemic.”

Even before the pandemic, about 11 per cent of Canadians were food insecure, and the majority of them were employed, according to 2018 data from Statistics Canada. But low-wage jobs and precarious work situations — including many that have proved essential during the pandemic, like grocery store workers, care home attendants and delivery drivers — were already leaving many without enough money to cover their basic needs.

In other words, food insecurity is driven by poverty — not by a lack of food.

And the burden is not shared evenly by all Canadians. A 2019 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that Canadians who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) earned significantly less than their white counterparts. Research by PROOF, an interdisciplinary research team studying effective approaches to reduce food insecurity in Canada, also found that Black and Indigenous households are almost three times as likely to be food insecure as white households.

The impact of being unable to afford food cuts deep, Black explained.

“We know that there’s this co-existence of food insecurity and mental health problems, as there (is) for chronic health and food security problems,” she said. “It’s a feedback loop, where one makes the other worse.”

For instance, about 40 per cent of people who need to compromise the quality or quantity of their food — or miss meals — because they can’t afford it reported having depressive thoughts, according to research by PROOF. And adults in Ontario who are food insecure are also almost twice as likely to end up in hospital due to deteriorating mental health than the general population.

"What the pandemic is pointing to is that we have societal responsibilities to ensure basic needs are met, and that you can’t dig yourself out of mental health challenges if you don’t have the basic necessities of life,” said UBC prof Jennifer Black.

The tight link between hunger and poor mental health also makes it harder for people to heal from both, said Sasha McNicoll, a senior policy specialist at Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that supports community-focused food initiatives across the country.

“It is a huge stressor. It affects mood and sleep, it can lower self-esteem and lead to hopelessness. And that has other repercussions, like people being less likely ... to feel like they can have the kinds of life ambitions or goals that they want to, and that can lead into a bit of a vicious cycle,” she said.

Food insecurity is directly related to mental health, with Canadians who are forced to go hungry reporting significantly higher rates of mental illness in 2018. Graph by PROOF

The situation has only gotten worse since the pandemic started. In May, about a fifth of Canadians reported poor mental health or significant anxiety. Those numbers almost tripled, however, for people in food-insecure households, according to the December StatCan report.

People who had suffered financially due to the pandemic were almost twice as likely to report moderate or severe anxiety than those who kept their jobs. According to more recent data, a fifth of Canadian households reported they’re still struggling to make ends meet.

“Canadians who reported food insecurity because of financial constraints … reported significantly poorer mental health outcomes,” noted the report’s authors. “Food insecurity is a highly stressful experience … In the context of COVID-19, these feelings may be compounded further by social isolation and worries about new health risks and financial insecurity.”

For Black, the report’s findings point to the need for a better social safety net, including the implementation of a basic livable wage. Not only would that help keep Canadians well fed, she said, it would also reduce pressure on an already overburdened mental health-care system. Beyond effectively and respectfully meeting Canadians’ basic needs, it’s also an approach that acknowledges the truly communal roots of hunger, poverty and, in some cases, mental illness, Black explained.

“We have (historically) treated poverty, food insecurity and mental health as (issues) of personal responsibility,” she said.

“But what the pandemic is pointing to is that we have societal responsibilities to ensure (everyone’s) basic needs are met, that basic supports are available for everybody and that you can’t dig yourself out of mental health challenges if you don’t have the basic necessities of life.”

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer