In Profile: Valerie Tarasuk

Professor Valerie TarasukScientists have long known there is a correlation between food insecurity and poor health. However, a recent study led by University of Toronto Professor Valerie Tarasuk revealed the scale of the problem: more than four million Canadians face some degree of food insecurity, and the most food-insecure utilize more than double the health-care dollars of the food-secure.

“Previously, most of the research in the area relied on self-reported measures of health,” says Tarasuk, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. “In this study, we used administrative health-care data for the province of Ontario in order to discover just how much the problem costs our health-care system. The costs we identified are staggering.”

The researchers discovered that health-care costs for adults living in households afflicted by severe food insecurity were 121 per cent more than costs for food-secure Canadians. About three per cent of all households in Canada experience severe food insecurity, which means disrupted eating patterns or reduced food intake due to financial constraints.

“We feel this study is making a business case for an intervention: the fact that this problem is costing so much money in health care budgets highlights the urgent need for it to be tackled,” says Tarasuk. “Households that rely on social assistance or employment insurance are at very high risk of food insecurity, but it is important to recognize that almost two-thirds of food-insecure households in this country are reliant on employment incomes. How is it possible that so many people in Canada are working but still are not able to make ends meet?”

Tarasuk says all levels of government in Canada need to work on systems-level solutions, which could range from income and employment supports to ensuring the availability of affordable rental accommodation. “Unfortunately, we have yet to see policy interventions at either the provincial or federal level that specifically target this issue. Therefore, a big part of our research program has been to create the evidence base for intervention and identify policy initiatives that would effectively reduce household food insecurity,” she says.

Another troubling fact about food insecurity in Canada is that families with children under 18 are at higher risk. More than 15 per cent of Canadian households with children struggle to put food on the table, affecting more than one million children. “The negative implications of food insecurity for the health and well-being of Canadian children are very well documented,” says Tarasuk. “Children affected by severe food insecurity are more likely to develop a broad spectrum of chronic health conditions, ranging from depression to asthma.”

That is why Tarasuk is excited to partner with other researchers at the Lawson Centre to raise awareness of, and promote policy to reduce, food insecurity for the benefit of young and old Canadians alike.