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The Hungry Side of COVID-19: Food Insecurity During the Pandemic

We are currently facing one of the worst medical and economic catastrophes in the past century. COVID-19 has had a much broader effect than simply being a virus; it has impacted aspects of life that not many people consider, including food insecurity.

What is Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity refers to the inability to access food and eat a regular diet that meets dietary needs for a healthy lifestyle due to financial, physical, or social constraints (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, 2003).

Conditions that are considered signs of food insecurity include: food not lasting, not having money to buy more, not being able to afford balanced meals, and having to skip or cut the size of meals (Statistics Canada, 2020).

Piece of bread on a plate next to a fork (Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels)

Food insecurity is a serious concern as it has been linked to poor health status and development of chronic conditions including asthma and depression (Kirkpatrick et al., 2010).

Impacts of COVID-19 on Food Insecurity in Canada

In order to grasp the effect the pandemic has had on food insecurity, it is important to look at the situation pre-pandemic. From the 2017-2018 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), it was reported that 12.7% of households were food insecure (about 4.4 million individuals) (Tarasuk & Mitchell, 2020). Compared to a recent survey done by Statistics Canada in May 2020, the number of Canadians facing food insecurity has risen, with 14.6% of Canadians living in households with food insecurity. 

Those who are most vulnerable during this time include households with children (Statistics Canada, 2020). In the 2017-2018 CCHS, 16.2% of households with at least one child under 18 were food insecure. This number has now risen to 19.2% post-pandemic. Moreover, those who have lost their jobs or cannot work due to COVID-19 are three times more likely to be food insecure compared to those that are working (Statistics Canada, 2020).

Other populations who were more likely to be food insecure before the pandemic are also heavily affected. This includes those who identify as Indigenous or Black (Tarasuk & Mitchell, 2020). In fact, Black households are 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure than white households (PROOF & FoodShare , 2019), and 50.7% of First Nations people reported being food insecure in 2017-2018 (Tarasuk & Mitchell, 2020). As well, lone parents with children, those with lower incomes, and people who rent rather than own a home are more vulnerable to food insecurity (Tarasuk & Mitchell, 2020).

Household food insecurity separated by race (Courtesy of PROOF and FoodShare).

Why Food Insecurity Has Increased

There is a strong relationship between economic status and food insecurity. With the pandemic causing a strain on the economic industry, it is no wonder that food insecurity has risen. In May 2020, we saw the highest record of unemployment ever in Canada, with 13.7% of Canadians (Statistics Canada, 2020) being unemployed. It has decreased since then (12.3% in June), but still remains very high.

This surge in the loss of work has caused more individuals to rely on social assistance programs such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Employment Insurance (EI) Benefits. It has been reported that reliance on social assistance is one of the strongest predictors of severe food insecurity (Tarasuk et al, 2019). Some individuals also may not be eligible for CERB or EI and instead work reduced hours, still resulting in a lower income and an increased risk of being food insecure. Furthermore, it does not help if food prices are expected to increase by 4% in 2020 (Charlebois et al, 2019).

Another barrier to food security is the regulations of physical distancing (Deaton and Deaton, 2020). These policies add additional complications with obtaining food as it limits individuals from accessing services that provide food (i.e. grocery stores, restaurants, food banks) and cause people to stock up on food, leading to food shortages and price increases. These services also face hardship. For example, food banks rely heavily on volunteers who may stop volunteering due to potential exposure to COVID-19.

Almost empty shelf in a grocery store (Photo by Kate Trifo from Pexels).

Services Available

Below are some services that help to increase Canadians’ accessibility to food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Food Banks

Food banks have seen an increase in usage and require help now more than ever. Ways you can help include volunteering at your local food bank, donating resources, or donating to the Food Banks Canada COVID-19 Response Fund.

2. Community Initiatives

Students and young people are continuing to get involved in their communities to help those in need. For example, Bag Half Full is a volunteer initiative created by medical students that provide free grocery shopping and delivery services for vulnerable populations across Canada. Also mentioned in one of our previous posts are youth-led organizations such as Janus Skills 4 Success; they have done curbside pickups and drop-offs of non-perishable food donations in Hamilton, Ontario.

3. Online Grocery Shopping Apps

Apps such as PC Express and Instacart allow you to shop for groceries online, providing a contact-free shopping experience. Costco has recently partnered with Instacart to provide same-day grocery delivery. Other apps like Skip the Dishes and UberEats also help to keep local restaurants open and provide Canadians with the satisfaction of their food preferences. Aside from allowing users to shop digitally, these companies also provide jobs as personal shoppers to those who have lost work.

Person using tablet to shop for groceries online (Supermarket News).


Food insecurity has been an issue even before the COVID-19 pandemic. It stems from not being able to afford food and having limited access to it, which COVID-19 has put immense pressure on. Households with children and racialized communities including Black and Indigenous people are among those facing food insecurity. These issues will certainly continue to rise, and we will see the true effect of the pandemic when resources such as CERB run out.


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Article contributors: Sherilyn Wen, Vanessa Wong