Valerie Tarasuk is a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. Her research extends to Canadian food policy and population-level dietary assessment, but her most significant impact has been in the area of household food insecurity. She has worked to elucidate the scope, nature, and nutrition and health implications of this problem in Canada, assess the effectiveness of community responses, and determine how public policies impact food insecurity prevalence and severity. In 2011, Val led the establishment of PROOF, an interdisciplinary research program launched to identify effective policy approaches to reduce household food insecurity in Canada and mobilize knowledge to inform action.
Household food insecurity, the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints, is a serious public health problem in many high income countries including Canada. In 2017–18, 12.7% of Canadian households experienced some level of food insecurity, and this rate appears to have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic. Food insecurity tracks with other markers of social and economic disadvantage in Canada, but it disproportionately affects households with children. This is concerning because household food insecurity is a potent social determinant of health. While there are scant data on the relationship between food insecurity and health in early childhood, marked differences have recently been documented in perinatal health and infant feeding practices. Food insecurity during pregnancy is associated with increased likelihood of treatment for post-partum mental disorders and increased emergency health care use among infants (Tarasuk et al, 2020). Food-insecure women are as likely as others to initiate breastfeeding, but they tend to cease exclusive breastfeeding much earlier (Orr et al, 2018) and many then struggle to access needed formula (Frank, 2020). The fact that household food insecurity is associated with such profound differences in maternal and infant experiences raises serious questions about the adequacy of our existing fabric of services and supports. It also highlights the need for improvements to the design of the Canada Child Benefit and related provincial/territorial programs to better protect families from food insecurity.