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COMMENTARY: Food security continues to impact Canadians

Food insecurity exists in a spectrum, from anxiety about not being able to access enough food to eating food of decreased quality to food deprivation. In 2012, four million Canadians were food insecure – the highest level since we started measuring food security in Canada.

Everyone deserves to share in the bounty of our land.

As harvest time approaches, many of us look forward to sharing food-laden tables with close friends and family. It is a time of plenty and conviviality. Sadly, this will not be the case for 13 per cent of Canadians who are food insecure – those of us who do not have access to food of sufficient quantity and quality due to financial constraints.

Food insecurity exists in a spectrum, from anxiety about not being able to access enough food to eating food of decreased quality to food deprivation. In 2012, four million Canadians were food insecure – the highest level since we started measuring food security in Canada.

The health effects of food security are wide-ranging. Children may experience short stature, anemia, asthma or even depression or suicidal ideation from lack of access to sufficient nutritious food. Adults experience a host of physical and mental health problems including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and depression.

Even infants suffer from food insecurity because mothers who are nutritionally deprived stop breastfeeding sooner and are forced to switch formula brands constantly based on availability from food banks, sometimes consuming expired bottles of formula due to poor supply.

The relationship between food insecurity and health goes in both directions. Poor food access gives rise to poor health and those who have poor health or chronic disease have less money to pay for food due to decreased ability to earn an income and increased expenses for medications and rehabilitation services.

In adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Canada recognized the right to food as an inviolable human right. In 1989, the House of Commons passed a resolution committing the government to the elimination of child poverty by the year 2000.

Yet in 2021, far too many children go hungry in Canada. This is a shocking and shameful state of affairs in a country where economic growth has continued to increase unabated in this same time period and the top one per cent of wealthy Canadians have continued to accrue wealth at increasing rates.

Why do we see this paradox of increasing wealth and prosperity on one hand, and deepening hunger and poverty on the other?

In Canada, as in many other high-income countries, we have adequate resources to support decent living conditions for our entire population, but we have a problem with unequal distribution of those resources.

Canada’s main response to food insecurity has been to treat it as a charitable issue rather than a social injustice.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau summed up this response succinctly at Thanksgiving last year when he urged Canadians to “consider grabbing an extra item or two for the local food bank” while at the grocery store because “it’s the Canadian way”.

Food insecurity is not a food problem, but a money problem. And people who are food insecure are not to be pitied and deemed deserving of our charity, but to be recognized as members of our society who are disadvantaged as a result of prevailing social and economic policies.

Food insecurity needs to be addressed at its root cause – income inequality. Policies to improve food security are policies that guarantee an income that individuals and families can live on in a healthy, safe and dignified manner.

There is no better proof this works than when we look at the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income for seniors. When the Old Age Benefit was paired with the Guaranteed Income Supplement, rates of food security in seniors plummeted from 28 per cent to five per cent.

Raising the minimum wage to make it a living wage, increasing worker’s compensation and social assistance payments to cover the essentials of life and providing a basic guaranteed annual income for all Canadians are policies that are certain to reduce food insecurity.

Policies to create increased employment opportunities and provide robust universal programs for childcare, pharmacare and affordable housing will also increase the ability of Canadians to spend more on nutritious food.

It should not be the Canadian way to take away people’s dignity so they are forced to rely on food banks. It should not be the Canadian way to keep people in poverty so that others can feel good by doing charity. The Canadian way is to respect our fellow citizens’ dignity and give everyone an opportunity to share in the bounty of our land.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.