Many people grow up without enough food to eat, even within Canada; a G7 country with one of the world’s most advanced economies. The Government of Canada defines food insecurity as the “inability to acquire or consume” a diet that is adequate in quality and quantity, or “the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.”
Living with food insecurity negatively impacts both mental health and diet-related chronic disease.
A social justice issue
Food insecurity is a social justice issue. It is intimately tied to the social determinants of health, including income, employment and working conditions, education, gender and racism. This places people who are part of historically marginalized groups at greater risk of food insecurity. This includes Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other sexually and gender diverse (2SLGBTQ+) groups.
Cis-heteronormativity, or the assumption that all people are straight and identify within binary gender norms, leads to many of the social issues that impact food security for 2SLGBTQ+ people. For example, there is a social epidemic of homelessness for 2SLGBTQ+ youth in the United States.
According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, the reasons many youth leave their homes are rooted in homophobia, transphobia and stigma. Many 2SLGBTQ+ youth have families that do not accept them and are faced with violence both at home and at school.
In Canada, the leading cause of homelessness for 2SLGBTQ+ youth is reported to be family violence, an issue that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only worsened family violence, but it has also led to food shortages, social isolation, job losses and new economic vulnerabilities. All of these factors negatively impacted food insecurity as a whole for many people. Evidence shows that food insecurity in Canada increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, usually for historically marginalized and stigmatized groups.
The aim of my qualitative research study was to explore the food experiences and nutritional supports of self-identifying 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians during the mandated health protection orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this study — carried out at Mount Saint Vincent University — 70 people responded to an online open-ended questionnaire. Approximately one-third of participants noted that they did not have any support systems in place to help them with their nutritional needs during this time. This is despite the fact that many believed that having supports from nutritional experts and dietitians would have been, in the words of one participant, “insanely helpful.”
“I would have liked to see a nutritionist, but COVID didn’t really allow for that. My partner has been very supportive and pays for most of the bills.”
A theme of financial supports
Some participants spoke in terms of financial supports. A few said they felt privileged to be able to work from home. Some participants spoke of family members and partners who helped ease their financial burdens stemming from things such as job layoffs and increasing food and rent prices.
For example, one participant said,
“She, my partner, makes a living wage and I don’t so that’s been a big change for me. Pooling our income has allowed me to eat much ‘better’ more nutritionally dense foods, and foods I want to eat.”
Another participant said,
“I didn’t have to pay for my own food. That was the main support. I was living with my family and my parents paid the grocery bills which removed almost all nutritional concerns for me.”
Other participants, however, did not have such family supports to help them with the financial burdens that impacted their access to food. They talked about the high costs of nutritious foods, as one participant said:
“It has been costly to maintain healthy foods.”
Some of these participants had used government supports and food banks to help them. However, these were not always solutions for the participants.
“Food banks don’t have the proper food that I need when I couldn’t afford food, however I was able to get a grant during that time which helped pay for my food for a month.”
Although food banks can help in many ways, this participant noted food banks were not always a solution for them. In many countries, food banks may also be affiliated with religious organizations. This can have implications for some 2SLGBTQ+ people. Other researchers noted that religious-run food banks in America created barriers for trans and gender nonconforming people to accessing help due to fear, minority stress and anti-LGBT discrimination.
Food insecurity is an important issue
This study was not designed to capture the scale of food insecurity in 2SLGBTQ+ groups in Canada, nor to make generalities about their experiences. The study does, however, offer a starting point to discuss this issue with government and health leaders.
A few participants even highlighted the need for more research to explore the connections between income, food insecurity, food banks and the nutritional needs of 2SLGBTQ+ individuals.
Phillip Joy receives funding from Mount Saint Vincent University.