Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Public Health

Household Food Insecurity and Hunger among Families Using Food Banks

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Public Health

Household Food Insecurity and Hunger among Families Using Food Banks

Article excerpt


Over the past two decades, the demand for charitable food assistance has steadily grown, and a massive ad hoc system of food banks has become established in Canada. To assess the food insecurity and nutritional vulnerability of one subgroup of food bank users, interviews were conducted with a sample of 153 women in families using emergency food relief programs in Metropolitan Toronto. Ninety percent reported household incomes which were less than two-thirds of the `poverty line', and 94% reported some degree of food insecurity over the previous 12 months. Seventy percent reported some level of absolute food deprivation, despite using food banks. The findings highlight the limited capacity of ad hoc, charitable food assistance programs to respond to problems of household food insecurity which arise in the context of severe and chronic poverty.


Au cours des deux derni*res decennies, la demande d'aide alimentaire aupres des organismes caritatifs n'a cess6 d'augmenter et un important systcme de banques alimentaires s'est mis en place au Canada. Pour evaluer la precarit6 et la vulnerabilite alimentaires d'un sous-groupe d'usagers des banques alimentaires, on a interviewe un echantillon de 153 femmes dans des families faisant appel aux programmes d'aide alimentaire d'urgence dans la region metropolitaine de Toronto. Quatre-vingt dix pour cent d'entre elles ont declare disposer d'un revenu representant moins de deux tiers du revenu correspondant an seuil de pauvrete ,, et 94 % d'entre elles ont declar* avoir craint manquer de nourriture au cours des 12 mois prdcedents. Soixante dix pour cent ont d*clare un certain manque absolu de nourriture malgre leur recours aux banques alimentaires. Les r*sultats soulignent les capacit*s limitees des programmes d'aide alimentaire caritatifs pour repondre aux problemes d'insecurite alimentaire vtcue dans les foyers souffrant de pauvrete extreme et chronique.

The past two decades in Canada have been marked by high levels of poverty, unemployment, and underemployment,'-3 and by fundamental changes in social policies and programs for people experiencing the hardships of poverty and unemployment.4 In the wake of these changes, communities have struggled to respond to growing problems of hunger and homelessness. One such response has been the establishment of food banks, ad hoc, voluntary organizations which collect and distribute donated foodstuffs to those `in need'. The utilization of food banks has steadily increased since they began in the early 1980s, with 1.4 million people seeking assistance in 1989,5 and more than double that number being helped in 1997.6

Food bank utilization is generally thought to be indicative of household food insecurity* (popularly termed 'hunger') and to denote nutritional vulnerability,, but little is known about the actual food intakes or nutritional well-being of those who use food barks. To begin to address these questions, a study of food insecurity and nutritional vulnerability among women in families using food banks was undertaken. The focus on women arose because of research suggesting that women may compromise their own intakes to provide for their children in times of severe constraint.9-lz In this paper, the families' living circumstances are described, household food insecurity is assessed, and its relation to food bank use is explored.


Study participants were recruited from a stratified, random sample of 21 emergency food hamper programs in Metropolitan Toronto. A detailed description of the sampling and recruitment appears elsewhere.'3 Women were deemed eligible if they were age 19-49, non-pregnant, had at least one child under the age of 15 in their household, had used a food bank at least one other time in the previous 12 months, and possessed sufficient English fluency to participate in oral interviews. Study recruitment occurred between May 1996 and April 1997. Participation was voluntary and confidential. …

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