Addressing the stigma that prevents many people from accessing food banks

“We need to help people feel less guilty and embarrassed about accessing [food banks]. I would love to see advertisements about normalizing food bank access. Don’t be embarrassed if you need to access the food bank. That’s why it’s here.”

— Research participant quote

Far too many people in Canada experience food insecurity and hunger.

The main driver of food insecurity in Canada is lack of income, and community-run organizations such as food banks exist to help support people who find themselves struggling to afford food.

However, there’s a large gap between those experiencing food insecurity and those who actually seek help.

There are few national studies that closely examine the reasons for this gap. As Food Banks Canada continues its work to improve access to food, it is crucial we get input from those most closely connected to the issue — people experiencing food insecurity and food bank clients themselves.

With the support of the Walmart Foundation, we launched a national participatory action research (PAR) initiative — a form of research that offers people with lived experience the chance to conduct research on their own behalf.

In the context of food insecurity, PAR can elicit rich insights from people who have a close connection to and understanding of the issue. As is standard practice with PAR, people with lived experience participated in all aspects of the research process.

That meant the researchers in this project — the “peer researchers” as they became known — determined the research plan, developed the research questions, conducted the interviews with over 100 respondents, and analyzed those interviews both individually and as a group.

Their vision, insight and observations generated clear themes regarding why people are reluctant to get help, and these themes were explored quantitatively by a national population-based survey of over 1,000 food-insecure households.


Participants in the PAR study identified a range of barriers that influence their decision to access — or not access — food banks despite experiencing food insecurity.

A key theme that emerged is the stigma related to accessing a food bank. It was one of the main reasons people reported not getting help when they needed it and was the biggest emotional hurdle to overcome.

The results of the national population-based survey reinforced this finding, with the top-cited major barriers being “feeling ashamed” (54% of respondents) and “feeling others need it more” (46% of respondents). The possibility of “feeling unwelcome or judged” was the third major barrier cited most frequently (41%), with respondents who are Black being significantly more likely to mention this as a barrier than all other racial identities (55%).

While our findings demonstrate that the reasons behind food insecurity at the individual level can be very complex, solutions to improve access to food banks are very straightforward.

One of these solutions includes addressing the stigma, shame and embarrassment that prevent many from accessing a food bank — an issue respondents emphasized repeatedly that needs to be addressed. One way to do this would be to spread awareness that it is perfectly acceptable to access a food bank.

While normalizing food bank access may seem counterintuitive to many of those who advocate for systemic policy changes and do not want to let the government “off the hook,” input from many of the people who were interviewed for this project indicated that at the individual level, people facing food insecurity should be supported as much as possible to access the help they need.

“In just about every interview the participant mentioned how ashamed and embarrassed they were to need assistance due to the circumstances in their lives. Yet nearly every participant’s message to their fellow Canadians was that nobody else should feel embarrassed or ashamed.”

— Peer researcher quote

An essential component of PAR research is action. As we continue to push for long-term, systemic policy solutions to reduce poverty and food insecurity, we will keep working in partnership with people who have lived experience of food insecurity to reduce barriers to food access, and help achieve our vision of a Canada where no one goes hungry.

As a national network of 5,100 food banks and community organizations, Food Banks Canada is acting on these results and findings, as well as the recommendations made by those interviewed in the study, to reduce barriers to food access.

These actions include producing an accessibility and equity guide for the food bank network that included the findings of the PAR study, along with administering an access grant to provide funds to members of our network to help them implement the tools, resources, and training to help them further develop their existing efforts to reduce barriers to access in their communities.


Download our full PAR report here