By Graham Riches, Special to the Sun
See original article here.
Thirty years on, another Christmas, another round of media-led food-bank drives. And food charity, here in B.C. and across the country, still struggling with empty shelves. Time, perhaps, to rethink using surplus food to feed hungry people.
The scale of the problem is immense. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, in 2012 (the last year for which data is available) four million Canadians, including 523,000 British Columbians, were food-insecure. And this is an underestimate. Excluded from the survey are First Nations living on reserves, as well as those without addresses, the homeless.
Household food insecurity is caused by financial vulnerability: People anxious their food supplies will run out; people unable to afford balanced meals; people skipping meals; and, at more severe levels, people going days without eating.
What’s to be done?
A new federal government, with commitments to a national food policy and to a Canadian poverty-reduction plan, presents the opportunity for a new conversation about government accountability and public policy.
This reflects Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security, launched in 1998 by the then-Liberal government, recognized food as a basic human need and a fundamental human right.
Key to this strategy is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment, made following the cabinet swearing-in ceremony, to evidence-based policy-making. This is essential for thinking and acting outside the charitable food-aid box and for moving beyond the public perception that charity is an effective response to domestic hunger when evidence-based research tells otherwise.
Of course, there is a moral imperative to feed hungry people. We donate, show compassion and do our bit. Yet unaddressed is the true scale and underlying causes of widespread food insecurity, enabling governments to look the other way.
U.S.-style food banks arrived in Canada in 1981 as temporary responses to a deep recession. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank was established in 1982. Today, 97 food banks distribute emergency food aid throughout B.C.
Charitable and corporately sponsored food banking spread rapidly in all provinces and territories. In 1989, the Canadian Association of Food Banks was formed, later restructured as Food Banks Canada.
As food banking became institutionalized, so did its dependence upon the corporate food sector, supermarkets and restaurants for their discarded, edible food waste. Indeed, the National Zero Waste Council has just persuaded Metro Vancouver to recommend federal tax credits incentivizing the food-retail industry to divert even more food waste from landfill to local food banks. Seemingly a win-win for all, but is it?
There is no evidence that food banking has reduced food insecurity in B.C., let alone Canada. In 2012, 94,966 British Columbians used a food bank (rising to more than 100,000 in 2015). Yet, given that more than 500,000 B.C. residents experienced food insecurity in 2012, B.C.’s hunger problem is much greater than food bank numbers suggest.
Professor Valerie Tarasuk, Canada’s leading food insecurity expert, unequivocally states that “although there has been rigorous measurement of household food insecurity in Canada since 2005, the problem has not abated, it has grown.”
Between 2005 and 2012, household food insecurity in B.C. increased from 11 per cent to 12.7 per cent.
This is not only a “welfare” problem. Significantly, 62 per cent of food-insecure households are working poor. In fact, only one in four hungry Canadians uses a food bank, and many still remain hungry.
Studies by B.C.’s Ministry of Health clearly state that income poverty is the primary determinant of food insecurity. Still, the B.C. government continues its opposition to increased social-assistance rates, last raised in 2007. Yet, in a market economy, hungry people, like everyone else, require enough money to purchase the foods of their choice in normal and customary ways; that is, shopping at the local supermarket.
Since the early 1980s, governments in Canada have increasingly outsourced their responsibility for the income-poor to food charity. All the while, the growth of U.S.-style food aid has been eroding Canada’s well-developed system of income transfers and social security.
When food insecurity in the U.S. is more than double that in Canada, why do we choose this path? Is food waste for hungry people really the best we can do? We need to put food in all household budgets. Adequate wages and income benefits are the answer. A comprehensive, Canada-wide and evidence driven poverty-reduction plan is urgently required, with benchmarks, targets and timelines.
Do Ottawa and Victoria have the political will to act? And, if you donate to your local food bank, remind your MP and MLA that you are doing your bit. Will they do theirs?
Graham Riches is professor emeritus at UBC’s School of Social Work.