Food Insecurity and Health

Food Insecurity and Health

Image by Alexandra Haynak from Pixabay (people …)

Hunger is a feeling no one would ever welcome. Incorporated within a societal malaise, it now goes by a term less couched in the rawness of hunger and closer to the parlance of offficialdom—food insecurity. Although, whether it’s called hunger or food insecurity, it’s a dilemma that’s been with us for a very long time. In the past, food insecurity played a key role in the challenges to one’s health. In sometimes unexpected ways, it still does.

Insecurity in the Past

Food insecurity in the seventeenth century very much existed in Newfoundland and Labrador. At the time, it would’ve likely been referred to as malnutrition. Families were strung out along the coast with little access to medical assistance.1 Insufficient access to nutritious food is a quality to which the Placentia Bay area, as a part of Newfoundland and Labrador, has been able to lay claim for centuries.

With no refrigerators and certainly no grocery stores, they were reliant on restricted sources of food. They could take advantage of food they could provide for themselves from their gardens, household farms and fish. All was stored or preserved in myriad ways. As well, there was food such as flour or tea that was ordered prior to the winter. The inveterate hope was they would be able to make it to spring. But too often, they didn’t.

The Effect on Health

Many times they would run out of food before the birth of a new season. The lack of food led to health conditions tied to vitamin deficiencies. Beriberi was due to a vitamin B deficiency. Rickets was tied to a deficiency in vitamin D and finally scurvy, was a vitamin C deficiency. The diseases were a common complaint.

In the more distant past, there were no measures taken to confront the problems of food insecurity. Centuries ago, many families would run out of food in March. Anything stored in the autumn, such as root vegetables, salt cod or meat from the household farm was largely depleted or gone. Families had yet to begin fishing. So, it was considered “the long, hungry month of March.”

Hunger is a problem regardless of the age. These are sculptures were made by Jens Galschiøts “The Hunger March” in Copenhagen (Source: Wikipedia).

Even into the twentieth century, the continued lack of refrigeration, electricity and freezers ensured a diminished health for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. There may have been an established network for the exchange of foods. However, distance always compounded the accessibility to food. There was no way to get the food to people before it spoiled.

However, as time progressed into the twentieth century, there was an increased knowledge of how to circumvent these conditions. Healthcare was becoming more accessible. Technological improvements were able to collectively address the problem of the deficiencies that were once synonymous with the winter. Over the years, refrigeration and freezers developed.

Nowadays, most know their food is often just a short walk or drive away at the grocery store. One would think we should be set, the challenges known centuries ago a thing of the past. They’re not.

Current Food Insecurity

As of 2021, a study on the Household Insecurity in Canada 2021 estimated 17.9% in Newfoundland and Labrador were food insecure. That’s in a population Statistics Canada considers for 2023 to be 531,948. Of that amount, 4.5% were regarded as severely insecure. This means some simply missed a meal or reduced the amount of food they were eating.

There were 8.6% who were moderately food insecure, meaning they were willing to compromise in the quality of food given a lack of food and money. Finally, 4.9% of people are regarded as marginally insecure. They would take measures to limit their food intake or simply worry about running out of food. Food insecurity has changed its tactics. But it’s not going anywhere.

Current Effect on Health

Centuries ago, the deficiencies in food led to certain illnesses such as rickets and beriberi. Nowadays, the problems tied to food insecurity are different, yet equally devastating. As time progressed, by the latter part of the twentieth century, the lifestyles of many has contributed to a new set of health conditions. Now, more often than not, people are suffering from problems tied to obesity or diabetes. Both are tied to lifestyle. Both are also tied to food insecurity. And somewhere in there, money is playing a role.

A researcher firmly stated that the link between health and food insecurity is unquestionable. Obesity or diabetes are health conditions that may not be directly caused by food insecurity. Although, they are considerably exacerbated by it. However, one study, based on data from Ontario found the development of diabetes to be tied to food insecurity.

Sugar and needles of insulin, the double threat of diabetes. (Image by Barbara from Pixabay.)

Obesity is another condition that is associated with type 2 diabetes. Obesity is considered a major reason for developing Type 2 diabetes. Although obesity on its own is considered to be a potential result of food insecurity. It’s considered a paradox for obvious reasons. How could you run the risk of gaining weight due to a lack of food? It’s a conundrum being studied.

Yet some have put forth some explanations. For instance, some have blamed it on the low dietary quality and energy-dense food that is being consumed. To explain the tendency for women to exhibit obesity more than men, some have suggested this is because women are more likely to sacrifice good quality food to allow their children to benefit.

Final Thoughts

As in the past, food insecurity can have a grave effect on health. In modern times, type 2 diabetes is linked to food insecurity. However somehow related, the pathway to conditions such as obesity is still unclear to researchers. Nonetheless, we know that food insecurity involves specific challenges to one’s health. It’s changed over time, but remains a tenacious problem to those for whom the ready access to food is sometimes a challenge.

In a future essay, we’ll take a closer look at what most know is one of the main culprits behind food insecurity—poverty.


1. Medical assistance was sometimes available from British military hospitals. Although, their primary concern was their soldiers.


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Tait, Christopher A. et al. 2018 “The association between food insecurity and incident type 2 diabetes in Canada: A population-based cohort study” PLOS ONE

Tait, Christopher A. et al. 2018 “Food Insecurity and Type 2 Diabetes Risk” Population Health Analytics Laboratory

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food insecurity in Canada, 2021. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce

food insecurity (PROOF)

Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador 1996 Book 5: Health and Hard Times

Newfoundland and Labrador Adult Basic Education Social History Series

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