Many people grow up without enough to eat, even in Canada; a G7 country with one of the most advanced economies in the world. The Government of Canada defines food insecurity as “inability to acquire or consume“adequate food in quality and quantity, or “the uncertainty that one will be able to do so”.
A matter of social justice
Food insecurity is a social justice issue. It is intimately linked to the social determinants of health, including income, employment and working conditions, education, gender and racism. This puts people who are part of historically marginalized groups at greater risk of food insecurity. This includes two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and other sexual and gender diversity (2SLGBTQ+) groups.
Cis-heteronormativity, or the assumption that all people are heterosexual and identify with binary gender norms, leads to many social issues that impact the food security of 2SLGBTQ+ people. For example, there is a social homelessness epidemic among 2SLGBTQ+ youth in the USA.
According to National LGBTQ Task Force, the reasons why many young people leave their homes are rooted in homophobia, transphobia and stigma. Many 2SLGBTQ+ youth have families that do not accept them and face violence both at home and at school.
In Canada, the leading cause of homelessness among 2SLGBTQ+ youth is domestic violence, a problem that got worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only worsened domestic violence, it has also led to food shortages, social isolation, job losses and new economic vulnerabilities. All these factors negative impact on food insecurity as a whole for many people. The evidence shows that food insecurity in Canada increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, generally for historically marginalized and stigmatized groups.
The goal of my qualitative research study was to explore the dietary experiences and nutritional supports of self-identified 2SLGBTQ+ Canadians during mandatory 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 open-ended online questionnaire. About a third of participants said they had no support systems in place to help them with their nutritional needs during this time. This despite the fact that many felt that the support of nutrition experts and dietitians would have been, in the words of one participant, “incredibly helpful”.
“I would have liked to see a nutritionist, but COVID didn’t really allow it. My partner has been very supportive and pays most of the bills.
A theme of financial support
Some participants spoke of financial support. 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 burden from things like layoffs and rising food and rent prices.
For example, one participant said,
“She, my partner, makes a decent wage and I don’t, so that was a big change for me. Pooling our income has allowed me to eat much ‘better’, more nutritionally dense food, and food that I want to eat.
Another participant said,
“I didn’t have to pay for my own food. It was the main support. I lived with my family and my parents paid the grocery bills, which almost eliminated my nutritional problems.
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’s been expensive 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 food I need when I couldn’t afford food, but I was able to get a grant during this time that helped pay for my food for a month.”
Although food banks can help in many ways, this participant noted that food banks were not always a solution for them. In many countries, food banks can also be affiliated with religious organizations. This may have implications for some 2SLGBTQ+ people. Other researchers have noted that religiously-run food banks in America created barriers for trans and gender non-conforming people people to access help due to fear, minority stress and anti-LGBT discrimination.
Food insecurity is a significant problem
This study was not designed to capture the extent of food insecurity among 2SLGBTQ+ groups in Canada, nor to generalize about their experiences. The study, however, offers a starting point for discussing this issue with government and health officials.
A few participants even highlighted the need for more research to explore the links between income, food insecurity, food banks, and the nutritional needs of 2SLGBTQ+ people.