Canada’s national food policy is at risk of enshrining a two-tiered food system

June 6, 2023

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau helps prepare a food box at a food bank in Mississauga, Ont., in November 2022. Food charity is not the solution to ending food insecurity in Canada.

Valerie Tarasuk, University of Toronto and Tim Li, University of Toronto

Just two days after the release of the latest statistics on household food insecurity in Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced the start of a new phase of the Local Food Infrastructure Fund.

Launched in 2019 as part of Canada’s Food Policy, this program funds infrastructure and equipment for local food charity programs and is the only federal program naming food insecurity reduction as part of its goal. However, this approach to addressing food insecurity is deeply misguided.

At a time when food insecurity affects almost one in five Canadians, the latest funding presumes that food-insecure households are accessing food charity and that doing so resolves their food insecurity.

Both assumptions are simply untrue. The problem is far too big and despite their best efforts, food charity can only ever provide limited, emergency support.

Food charity is no solution

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the program as part of fulfilling the government’s top priority of “making life more affordable for Canadians.” Bibeau described it as “designed to strengthen our local food systems and support the creation of more food banks, community gardens and collective kitchens.”

The latest funding announcement is even more explicit in asserting that food charity is the solution to food insecurity. In the news release, Bibeau said: “Now more than ever, we must support the work of organizations and food banks that help those who need it most.”

In a recent House of Commons Question Period, Bibeau’s parliamentary secretary, Francis Drouin, described the funding as an investment for food banks, “to help families put food on the table.”

Millions of Canadians are food insecure

These remarks suggest that the federal government sees volunteer-driven, community-based food charity programs as the solution for Canadians who are unable to afford food for themselves and their families.

Yet Canada’s massive and ever-expanding network of charitable food assistance programs can’t even keep the problem in check, let alone reduce or prevent it. Food charity operations are burgeoning, but more Canadians are affected by food insecurity than ever before.

The 2022 statistics show that 6.9 million people in the 10 provinces, including almost 1.8 million children, lived in households struggling to afford the food they need. That’s more than four times more than the number of visits food banks receive.

Seeking food charity is a strategy of desperation for food-insecure Canadians, mostly by those who are severely food insecure. But there’s no evidence to indicate that food charity prevents severe food insecurity or resolves it.

Will buying more refrigerators for community programs, presumably to facilitate their handling of the ever-expanding donations of “food waste” from major grocery chains and food processors, truly change this?

Enshrining a two-tiered food system

The latest call for applications to the Local Food Infrastructure Fund is even more disturbing when we consider its place as a centrepiece of Canada’s Food Policy.

The Food Policy’s ambitious vision that “all people in Canada are able to access a sufficient amount of safe, nutritious and culturally diverse food” seemed commendable when first announced.

But the vision being implemented through the Local Food Infrastructure Fund now is a two-tiered food system — affluent Canadians purchase premium products at supermarkets, farmers’ markets and designer food outlets, while millions of others line up to receive rations from volunteers working feverishly to distribute the food rejected from that retail system.

The direction of our national Food Policy is a sharp departure from the understanding of food insecurity reflected in Opportunity for All, a document produced by the federal government under its poverty reduction strategy.

The first pillar of the vision articulated in that landmark document is “dignity” — and living with dignity means having enough income to meet basic needs.

Food insecurity is identified as a key indicator of poverty, now tracked to measure our progress in poverty reduction. Unfortunately, food insecurity reduction has never been adopted as an explicit objective of policies led by Employment and Social Development Canada, and so the problem has festered.

Wooden shelves lined with canned goods.
Canned products sit on shelves at a food bank in Ottawa in October 2022.

Income-based policy interventions needed

Federal income supports are critical policy levers to reduce food insecurity in Canada, but this objective needs to be incorporated into how those income supports are designed.

Despite the federal government’s repeated celebration of the success of the Canada Child Benefit in reducing the rate of child poverty from its introduction in 2016 to 2019, almost one in four children in the 10 provinces were living in food-insecure families in 2022 – more than ever before.

Redesigning the Canada Child Benefit to provide more money than it currently does to the lowest-income households would help reduce food insecurity among families with children.

The Canada Workers Benefit and Employment Insurance are the two federal programs that support the incomes of workers in Canada and also have the potential to impact food insecurity rates.

Most food-insecure households rely on employment income. This means that having a job is not enough for many Canadians to meet basic needs. It also tells us that our existing supports for low-wage workers and those experiencing job loss are insufficient to bridge the gap.

The recently announced federal Grocery Rebate, while too small and short-lived to impact the alarming rates of food insecurity in Canada now, is a step in the right direction.

By giving much needed-cash directly to low-income Canadians, the rebate reflects the principles of dignity and inclusion so clearly articulated in the Poverty Reduction Strategy. By comparison, the latest call for funding applications for the Local Food Infrastructure Fund is a big step backward.

Missed opportunities

Although the policy levers needed to address food insecurity lie outside of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Ministry, the Food Policy was an opportunity to establish interdepartmental collaboration with Employment and Social Development Canada to chart an action plan aimed at reducing food insecurity in Canada and to begin making progress towards this goal.

Unfortunately, none of this came to fruition.

The Food Policy is slated for renewal later this year, which could be a chance for a course correction. The starting point must be a shift towards working in partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada to design, implement and evaluate income supports that reduce food insecurity.The Conversation

Valerie Tarasuk, Professor of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto and Tim Li, Research Program Coordinator, Food Insecurity, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.