Photo: flickr/bunnyhero

It has been both a disturbing and telling couple of weeks in terms of news developments related to food distribution in Canada.

First, at the end of July, a report by researchers at the University of Toronto showed that nearly four million Canadians face what they, as is now commonplace, somewhat euphemistically describe as “food insecurity”; an academic way of saying that these citizens either are not able to buy enough food for themselves or their families or that they are constantly struggling to do so. In the case of Nunavut, where the situation is at its worst, over 50% of households experienced food insecurity, while in both PEI and New Brunswick it was a quarter or more of households.

Jennifer Taylor, head of the PEI Food Security Network, reacted to the island province’s embarrassingly high numbers by stating:

It’s a social problem. It’s not a nutritional problem [but] it has nutritional outcomes…

This is an embarrassment. We have the home of Green Gables, we have beautiful beaches, we have friendly, generous people and we have the most kids — save Nunavut, that’s the only place higher — that are possibly going to bed hungry or going the whole day without food. This is a crisis and we need to deal with it.

The consequences of “food insecurity”, or put more bluntly, hunger, malnourishment and the stress of trying to get food on the table, is devastating for those families and individuals facing it.  The report’s project leader, Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, put it in stark terms:

The impact of this situation on children, families, communities, the health care system and our economy cannot be overstated…The problem is not under control and more effective responses are urgently needed. The cost of inaction is simply too high.

Shortly after the release of this report, came news from Statistics Canada about the rising price of food in Canada between 2007-2012. In the words of Mark Brown of their economic analysis division:

The report showed that prices have increased at a cumulative rate of 19% over the last five years. The report also showed that for Canada, the price of food rose at almost twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index, excluding food.

This is a staggering increase that directly effects the financial well-being of citizens, especially, obviously, lower income households and those on fixed (and always declining versus inflation) social assistance rates. It also clearly adds to the acute problem of “food insecurity” described above.

Finally, a third report released by the Conference Board of Canada on August 8, found, among other troubling environmental conclusions, that as much as 40% of all food in Canada is wasted. This waste is equivalent to as much as $27.7 billion annually.

Put in the context of widespread food insecurity and the rise of prices, this level of waste is truly appalling both socially and morally. It means that not only is food that could feed citizens who are going hungry being wasted on hard-to-believe and disgraceful levels, but such wastage inevitably will be a factor in keeping food prices high, in this case artificially.

The Conference Board, typically and disingenuously given its business bent, puts the onus for the waste on consumers, and calls for greater “education and awareness campaigns”. While it is, no doubt, true, that most food waste cumulatively will occur in households, the 40% figure is not an average, it is a total. Any given household, taken individually, will waste far less food than the vast majority of restaurants and supermarkets/food retailers taken individually.

What the numbers really indicate is that food waste is a systemic part of our food distribution system, that it is tied to the quantities in which food is packaged, marketed and sold as well as to standard commercial food practices, like restaurants and diners filling plates with more food, often by far, than a person is likely to finish. The food industry, as a whole, profits greatly from this waste, as it directly impacts supply and demand in ways obviously in its favour and drives up prices.

Further, though, the Conference Board’s calls for “education and awareness” are absurd in a society and economic system predicated on the principle of  perpetual over-consumption (in economic terms) socially, with the over-consumption the more pronounced the higher up the economic ladder one climbs, it being basically non-existent at the lower end. Placing the “blame” on households conveniently diverts attention from the profound immorality of what this waste represents. It is an intrinsic part of our capitalist system of “food distribution” and not an incidental one.

The waste embodies the very ethos and underlying driving forces of consumerist capitalism and highlights its moral and economic contradictions as well as how it is basically unsustainable.

Most Canadians are aware that we are living in a dangerous housing bubble which is at best now “cooling”, though it shows very real signs of collapsing. This is especially problematic as the housing bubble was essentially engineered by the Federal Government as a form of economic stimulus, and the government, and citizens, are on the hook for it should it collapse.

These actions have also had the, to say the least, morally dubious effect of dramatically driving up housing prices making them less affordable to those with lower incomes, even despite the loosening of mortgage qualification rules until recently. In the long term they have also created conditions in which it is quite likely that many Canadians will be paying mortgages on properties worth significantly less than what they purchased them for.Finally, they have placed many Canadians in a position, though admittedly of their own nominal “free will” in which they have a remarkable net worth on paper, tied up in the value of a house they do not actually yet own, but who in reality are a paycheque or two away from losing everything.

Many are also aware that we have sustained much of Canada’s economic “recovery” since 2008 through the extension of credit and the facilitation of a culture of indebtedness that has led to Canadians being in far greater debt than at any other time in their history. This is a credit bubble which is also clearly driven by consumerist forces in the economy backed by the government’s and corporate sectors policies around credit. As with all bubbles, it would take a surprisingly small number of initial defaults on mortgages and credit card/line-of-credit debts to set a whole chain reaction of default and rapid economic downturn in motion.

Further, looser credit spurs over-consumption in that people buy things that they otherwise could not afford and may in fact not be able to afford. Cars, more expensive housing, appliances, etc. This is what makes it such a dangerous form of economic “stimulus”. The consumption is not based on higher incomes (as we all know incomes are largely stagnating versus inflation) or on direct government spending on infrastructure or social programs that actually puts real money in the pockets of citizens, but rather on making it easier to buy things without having the actual money to do so. This can only, for obvious reasons, go on for so long. It also leaves out entirely the poor and the lower income working class, as they often cannot get credit in any real sense and thus cannot “benefit” from it.

The loosening and over-extension of credit is the worst possible and most corporate friendly “solution” to the diminishing ability of the consumerist society to sustain consumption. It places the “risk” and obligation of the stimulus entirely on the back of the consumer and citizen.

The alarming reports in the food sector very much fit this broader social pattern. We see the growth of “food insecurity” at a time of rapidly rising food costs in a setting of a largely unregulated corporate food industry that has engineered, facilitates and that profits from tremendous social waste. 

In a society  that makes a virtual cult out of the disposable, the food sector has not been left behind. From club packs, to encouraging citizens to buy more to “save” (an inherently absurd concept), to the socially created expectation that a “good meal” out means being served more food than we can eat, to retailers stocking shelves with more product than they can sell, the system is designed to create waste on a massive scale.

And as with other sectors of our consumerist economy it is not sustainable environmentally, economically or morally. It needs to be radically reexamined as do its systems of ownership and distribution.

Photo: flickr/bunnyhero