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The most recent data from 2012 estimates that four million Canadians are "food insecure." More concretely, according to Food Banks Canada, this means that 310,000 adults "had times when they were hungry, but could not afford to eat." Out of these, 200,000 actually "lost weight because they could not afford to buy food." Approximately 190,000 households were also "unable to feed their children a balanced meal because they did not have enough money."
And while the average Canadian spends only 10 per cent of their income on food, low income households may spend as much as 75 per cent. So, naturally, when food prices go up, those least able to deal with the financial shock are often the hardest hit.
In response, some well-meaning activists urge us to carry on the "giving spirit of the holidays" into the new year by donating to food banks and other social service agencies -- or as one economist somewhat nauseatingly put it, "to wear extra layers of kindness, generosity and love on top of what we normally wear."
However, this sort of philanthropy is dangerous. As Alberta Views magazine argued so well, private support to such charities allows the government to avoid fulfilling its responsibilities of providing basic services. This forces already vulnerable groups to rely on the funding "whims" of individual wealthy citizens -- which seems completely unnatural but has come to be accepted and even encouraged by initiatives such as food bank drives.
Just as we would not accept that someone's ability to visit the doctor when ill or the right of a child to attend school should be left to other people's generosity, the better-off should not be determining if and what the poorest eat.
Which begs the question: why are our taxes not being used to ensure that sufficient, nutritious food is accessible to all Canadians?
One reason is that we have for so long framed hunger as an inevitable reality for "the unfortunate few" without thinking about who those few are, and how and why they have fallen into this group. We have avoided identifying the real causes of hunger, thereby also failing to hold our politicians accountable for dealing with them.
So what are some of these causes?
It is tempting to go immediately to currency fluctuations, with 81 per cent of all vegetables and fruit consumed in Canada being imported.
But that alone does not explain the distribution of poverty and food security in our country, which is anything but random.
Aboriginal communities and the Northern Territories are the biggest victims. In Nunavut, for example, food costs approximately double what it does in the rest of Canada, and sometimes more. While most would pay $2 for a kilogram of carrots, Nunavut residents would pay $6. Groups who are often voiceless in the political sphere are thus also the ones who suffer the most from hunger and low-quality food.
Even Statistics Canada's research excludes the most marginalized groups: their data on food security, including the figures cited earlier in this article, does not include the homeless, or people living on First Nations reserves, where food security is likely the most precarious. (Not to mention that the research is also severely outdated, with the latest data collected in 2012.)
Our own wasteful lifestyles are also part of the problem: on average, each Canadian household throws out $1,500 worth of food. This adds up to more than $31 billion worth of food a year, usually because of poor planning -- i.e. letting the food in our pantries and fridges go bad. High expectations for aesthetically pleasing items also drives supermarkets to frequently reject more than 30 per cent of the fresh produce delivered to them because they do not look exactly the way they are "supposed" to.
Our addiction to cars is another reason that food is increasingly less affordable for those who earn the least: biofuel is made pf crops which were once were used for food. Forty per cent of the corn crop in the United States and Canada is now grown for fuelling cars.
Several prior governments have promised the creation of a national food strategy, with the previous Conservative government even campaigning on the idea during the 2011 federal election. But this strategy is yet to see even a first draft.
As a result, as in the U.S.:
"previous administrations have failed to appreciate the linkages between farming, diet, public health, and the environment, with the result that the food system has never been effectively overseen, administered, or regulated. This in turn has resulted in severe market failures that we call by other names: the obesity crisis, runaway hunger, epidemics of chronic disease, the ethanol bubble, surface water contamination and hypoxia, soil degradation, food safety scares and recalls, rural economic decline, inner city food deserts, labor exploitation, rising economic inequality, and the federal fiscal crisis."
However, there is reason for hope: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently mandated the Minister of Agriculture to develop a food policy which "promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country."
However, the most inspiring proposal comes from a group of experts pushing to reform the American food system in ways which also address pressing health concerns, climate change, and economic inequality. While not all of their recommendations are relevant in the Canadian context, most are. Some highlights include:
Production: "re-solarizing" the production system by moving away from vast monoculture farms to diversified farming systems; eliminating support to biofuel production; reforming agricultural subsidies to support young, organic farmers producing fruits and vegetables for regional markets.
Marketplace: reforming social assistance to ensure that its subsidies are directed toward the purchase and consumption of healthy foods.
Food culture: introducing "edible education" into the school curriculum, including the building of school vegetable gardens and cooking lessons, including cooking of vegetarian dishes, and explicitly targeted to both boys and girls; mandating and funding school cafeterias to provide healthy, sustainably grown food, a significant portion of which should be purchased locally (a model successfully implemented by the Province of Ontario); reforming food labelling to make it simple to determine that food is healthful, fair, and sustainable; taxing advertising for junk food and soda and using the revenue to fund public campaigns on healthy foods.
Administrative: reconceptualising and restructuring the governmental agriculture authority such that its goals and the interests of the food and beverage industry are subordinated to the goals of nutrition and health -- which should also result in significant savings in health care costs.
Worryingly, there was little talk of the food policy as Parliament reconvened last week. Even more disturbing, we learned that the new chief of staff to Canada's agriculture minister, Mary Jean McFall, is also a family member of the country's largest egg producer-processor, raising questions about whether someone whose family benefits so greatly from Canada's current quota system for eggs should be running the minister's office.
Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, recently said that a long-term perspective is key in a country with aging farmers and no real plan to encourage local food production.
Indeed, as Parliament continues its work, we need to demand the drafting of a national food policy with such a perspective, which also goes beyond food production and distribution to playing a key role in bringing us closer to our national health, environmental and economic equality goals.
Raksha Vasudevan works in the international development sector, currently based in Uganda. She is also a writer, avid reader, runner and foodie.
Photo: flickr/ Jon Fingas