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Not long ago, Canadians flocked to stores and worried about having enough food to stock their pantry. Yet for many of us, the worry of putting food on the table is not new. Even before COVID-19, food insecurity was a reality for 4.4 million Canadians, two thirds of whom were working regularly. Indigenous, Black and racialized communities were experiencing hunger at even higher rates. Meanwhile, farmers were already facing an income crisis, and too much of our food chain depended on precarious, low-paid jobs.

From farm to fork, people are struggling to adapt and get by, and it is apparent that bold, structural change is required. In response, Food Secure Canada (FSC) has launched a roadmap for getting to healthier, more just and more sustainable food systems in "Growing resilience and equity: A food policy action plan in the context of Covid-19."

The action plan outlines policy priorities based on lessons learned from food movements on the ground -- over decades of work and specifically the last months -- in the context of the pandemic. 

Policy priorities

Within an inclusive public-interest based approach, FSC proposes that Canada focus on the following:

  • Address the root cause of food insecurity by establishing a universal livable income floor beneath which no one can fall, while ensuring that everyone in Canada has access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food;

  • Build resilient, ecological local food systems that shorten and diversify food chains, revitalize communities, ensure greater access to healthy and fresh foods, support lower-emissions food systems, build greater resiliency to shocks, and reduce food loss and waste;

  • Support Indigenous food sovereignty where First Nations, Métis and Inuit determine their own place-based food systems, advancing policies that will best support self-determined, resilient futures;

  • Champion decent work and justice for all workers along the food chain by ensuring decent pay and conditions for every food worker, and meeting the specific demands of migrant workers;

  • Ensure everyone is at the policy-making table by immediately convening, resourcing and empowering the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council as per commitments in the Food Policy for Canada. This should include resourcing to ensure that wider civil society voices, above all those most marginalized by the present food system, are included; 

  • Harmonize Canada's national and international food policies, prioritizing food sovereignty approaches, supporting family farms and low-input, low-emissions agroecological food production, as well as sustainable processing and distribution, and

  • Immediately advance a national school food program, as promised in the 2019 budget and in the Food Policy for Canada, ensuring that it meets health outcomes, is universal and is developed in collaboration with provinces, territories, key stakeholder groups and Indigenous leaders.

As we head cautiously into recovery, two of these priorities can be put into action immediately: advancing a national school food program and implementing a universal liveable income floor.

Time to make a national school food program a reality

School food programs have been growing across Canada, providing nutritious food to children while at school. As schools closed, programs have demonstrated incredible innovation, altering their services to continue providing healthy food hampers to children and sometimes entire families.

The Coalition for Healthy School Food is a national network of 125 organizations serving 1.9 million children. While a national school food program has already been promised by the federal government, the coalition is calling for its implementation at last, starting with a one-time federal school food fund of $200 million. The fund would support infrastructure -- including kitchen retrofits -- and building greenhouses and school gardens, creating local jobs that could be part of public works stimulus programs. It would also finance pilot projects in food processing, distribution and preparation, where local ingredients are prioritised. Finally, the fund would allow for researching and evaluating the best practices for program delivery as we move towards a national program.

Not only would this allow more children to benefit from healthy food and get the nutrition they need, but it would also increase their food literacy and understanding of healthy diets. It would also build into the local economy, replacing imported ingredients with local ones. Studies have shown that increasing even a fraction of imported fruits and vegetables can lead to substantial increases to provincial GDP and the creation of new jobs.

Addressing the root causes of food insecurity 

While food security organizations such as food banks provide vital emergency supplies, it is crucial to go beyond short-term relief to address the root causes of food insecurity. Even with increased funding, charity-based models will never be able to establish the right to food for everyone. Instead, it is necessary to ensure that everyone's income is adequate for the local cost of living. 

There has been a groundswell of momentum for an adequate income, and FSC's action plan recommends establishing a universal livable income floor. This should build on the various existing government income supports and tax credits, increasing subsidies for necessities of life such as rent, as well as a mandated livable minimum wage set by the cost of living, instead of the cost that employers are willing to pay. Finally, this could be complemented by basic income schemes, which would include social safeguards and public review. By using a diversity of income measures to build a universal livable income floor, the grocery store worker as much as the farmer would know they have a back-up in case of personal or widespread catastrophe such as a pandemic.

As we cautiously reopen, it has become increasingly clear that the normal we once had was leaving too many people behind. While rebuilding in the era of COVID-19 is a daunting task, with political will our elected officials can facilitate the kinds of policies and programs to bring about deep, systemic change. We have the opportunity to reimagine the food systems we need. Let's build a future of food in a way that respects the health and dignity of both people and the planet.

If you agree, you can tell your MP now.

Food Secure Canada is a pan-Canadian alliance of organizations and individuals working together to advance food security and food sovereignty through three interlocking goals: zero hunger, healthy and safe food, and sustainable food systems.

Image: Kim Deachul/Unsplash

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