In this video, we look at what’s needed to tackle food insecurity in Canada. We need policy makers to treat food insecurity as a problem of inadequate income and respond with more effective income-based interventions, instead of relying on food charity as the primary response.
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Do you recognize these food charity messages? They’re not wrong, you can help end hunger, just not in the ways you’ve being asked to.
What is household food insecurity? It’s when a household doesn’t have enough money to buy food because of insufficient income. Food insecurity looks different in different households. In some households, it’s a concern that food will run out before there is money to buy more, in others it’s an inability to afford a balanced, adequate diet, and in others it’s missing meals or not eating for entire days because money has simply run out.
Food insecurity is a big problem in Canada. According to our most recent national data from 2017 and 2018, roughly 13% of households experienced some level of food insecurity over 12 months. This is a rate higher than any prior national estimate and it translates to 4.4 million food insecure individuals, 1.2 million of whom are children.
Why does household food insecurity matter? Because food security status is closely linked to health. Adults living in food insecure households are more likely to experience poorer physical and mental health. They are more likely to be diagnosed with a wide range of chronic conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and anxiety disorders. They also have a higher risk of premature death. Likewise, children living in food insecure households are more likely to develop asthma and mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
Unsurprisingly then, food insecurity is an extremely costly problem for our healthcare system. Compared to food secure adults, adults experiencing food insecurity have much higher healthcare costs. For example, severely food-insecure adults have 69% higher odds of being hospitalized for acute care compared to food-secure adults. We are all paying for this public health crisis.
Let’s take a closer look at who experiences food insecurity in Canada. First, households with lower incomes are more likely to be food insecure.
Second, 60% of households receiving social assistance are food insecure. Being on social assistance, a provincial program meant to help people in financial need, actually sets people up to be food insecure because the benefit amounts are so low.
Third, though households reliant on wages and salaries have a relatively low risk of food insecurity, 65% of food insecure households are in the workforce. This means that we have many people in this country who are working, but still cannot make ends meet because their wages are too low, or they are precariously employed.
Finally, Black and Indigenous households have rates of food insecurity that are 2 to 3 times higher than White households. These differences point to the serious health consequences of Canada’s long and ongoing history of colonialism and systemic anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
I hope I have convinced you that we have a problem on our hands. Well, more bad news. We have a parallel problem: Canada’s reliance on food charity as a response to food insecurity, from food banks, to soup kitchens, to meal programs, to community gardens. Through donations and volunteer labor, thousands of food banks across the country distribute groceries free of charge to those in need. Since the early 1980s, when food banks first proliferated, they have been the only direct response to household food insecurity in Canada.
Why is this a problem? Because despite great effort and dedication, food banks are an ineffective response to food insecurity. First, only a small proportion of food insecure households access food banks. While 4.4 million individuals experience some level of food insecurity, Food Banks Canada reported that there were only 1.1 million visits to food banks in March 2018.
Second, demand always exceeds supply in food banks. They rely on donations, so the amount of food available for distribution is limited and they have to find ways to ration supply. For example, they establish eligibility criteria to ensure that food goes to those most in need, they restrict how often people can obtain food and they significantly limit the amount of food given to each individual.
As a result, food banks do not have the capacity to decrease food insecurity among their clients. Indeed, some individuals report not using food banks because it is not worth the hassle for the small amount of food they receive. It is not surprising then, that despite 40 years of food charity, the problem of food insecurity has gotten worse.
Okay, let’s take a minute to unpack this, because at this point you may be thinking: supply can’t meet demand? We can fix that! Donate more, organize food drives, support the food banks!
It isn’t actually realistic to believe that increasing private donations would ever allow supply to meet demand. Think about it! Beyond the sheer amount of food that would be required, food banks would also need way bigger facilities and more infrastructure to store the food, they would need tons more volunteers to sort and distribute the food, and they would need to hire more staff to manage these operations. By necessity, enormous public funds would be required to enable the growth of this inefficient system.
But we don’t want public funds going towards this system. Food, no matter how it is distributed, is not the answer to food insecurity. By the time someone reports that they are struggling to put food on the table, they are also struggling to afford their other basic needs, such as housing, utilities, and pharmaceuticals. We ask about ability to afford food, but the answer tells us something much deeper about a household’s material circumstances.
Even though providing people with sufficient food may free up money to spend on other needs, there is a limit to the amount of savings these responses can confer. Savings can only ever be as high as the monthly cost of food, which may just not be enough for some households to meet their other basic needs.
Further, only households who use food banks would benefit from these hypothetical savings. But there are many households that do not make use of food banks for reasons unrelated to supply. Some households face barriers to access due to limited food bank operating hours, long line-ups and a lack of transportation. Others resist food bank use because, despite the best intentions of staff, the experience of accessing food charity inherently undermines individual dignity.
Yet, despite these arguments, we continue to see messages that promote food charity as the solution to food insecurity. For example, Food Banks of Saskatchewan asks the public to donate to help them “meet the need for food in Saskatchewan”, Moisson Montreal suggests that, “by volunteering your time, you will help make a significant difference in the fight against hunger”, and Toronto’s Parkdale Community Food Bank claims that, by donating, you can join their “mission to end food insecurity”. Messages like these fuel a false belief that the problem of food insecurity is being adequately addressed: people are donating, and food banks are ending hunger.
But to solve food insecurity, we need solutions that target its underlying cause: insufficient income. We need income-based public policies that provide people with more money to meet their basic needs. And we know this is what we need because we have evidence that food insecurity is reduced by policies that improve the adequacy of household income.
Let’s take a look at some examples. When substantial social assistance reforms were introduced in Newfoundland and Labrador between 2006 and 2012, the prevalence of household food insecurity among social assistance recipients dropped from 60% to 34%. Such evidence supports the assertion that we need to increase social assistance rates across the country and index them to inflation to reflect the true cost of living.
And while social assistance reforms are important, we also need solutions that address the needs of working food insecure households. Increasing minimum wage is maybe part of the answer, but many food insecure households rely on wages from short term, part time or temporary jobs.
So perhaps the best solution is a basic income guarantee. Based on the adequacy of a household’s income in their local context, a basic income establishes an income floor below which no one can fall. Anyone who falls below the income floor automatically receives a monthly cash transfer to boost them back. The piecemeal nature of our current social safety net means that no one program is accountable to making sure that every Canadian household receives enough to meet their needs. A basic income would fix that.
The strongest evidence for the impact of a basic income on food insecurity comes from research demonstrating the protective effect of our public pension system. When Canadians turn 65, they are entitled to a publicly funded monthly income called the Old Age Security pension. Low-income seniors are also eligible for additional income through the Guaranteed Income Supplement. As a result of this guaranteed income, the probability of food insecurity among low-income seniors drops by more than 50% compared to low-income adults in their fifties.
Importantly, this evidence demonstrates that food insecure households are not food insecure because they don’t know how to budget. We wouldn’t see the benefits of these policies if food insecure households were spending the money on non-essential purchases. When they have the money, they spend it on the food they need.
Alright, at this point you might have some questions. Give people more money? How would that even work? Where is all that money going to come from?!
Remember, we are currently paying for food insecurity in our healthcare system.12 The money needed to fund a basic income isn’t all new. In fact, some scholars argue that a basic income would result in overall public savings.
But the truth is, we don’t know exactly how it would work and it’s not our job to figure it out. It’s our government’s job to work out the details and test this model. And if they don’t believe basic income is the best way forward, they need to explore and implement alternative income-based options.
Also keep in mind, these income-based solutions are only part of the work that needs to be done. With systemic racism underlying the high rates of food insecurity among Black and Indigenous households, we also need to dismantle white supremacy through a complete rethinking of the way our systems work.
So here’s what you can do. To move away from our reliance on food charity, we need to harness the care and compassion demonstrated through our donations and volunteering and channel it into change. We need to spread awareness about the parallel problems of food insecurity and Canada’s continued reliance on food charity as the sole response.
Have conversations with your friends, family, and peers. Post on social media. Every voice, every perspective is important.
In response to government complacency and a lack of good leadership, we also need to show our elected officials that we care about this issue and are outraged by the way it has been neglected. Write letters, make phone calls, send emails, direct message and tweet to your federal, provincial and local government officials. Tell them what we know for sure: that food charity is not the answer to a problem rooted in income insufficiency. That it is unacceptable that there are food insecure households in a country as rich as ours. That we do not want federal funding of food banks, we want the government to explore, evaluate and implement sustainable income solutions to food insecurity.
You want to fight hunger, end food insecurity, feed hope? Then drop your soup can in your local food bank’s bin and advocate them out of business.
For more information about food insecurity in Canada, check out PROOF Canada’s website and follow us on Twitter. Let us know if you have any questions. Until then, thanks for watching!
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