A photo of a basket of vegetables.
A basket of vegetables. Credit: pxhere.ca Credit: pxhere.ca

Second Harvest estimates that food bank and other food-related programs across Canada served 5,141,481 people each month in 2022. That number is expected to increase 60 per cent in 2023 to 8,208,679 people every month.

What was to be a stop-gap measure during times of recession or job loss has become a staple for many Canadians over the past 30 years. Folks unable to adjust to rapid inflation, rising and uncontrolled rent, and skyrocketing food costs compound increasingly precarious work that doesn’t pay close to a living wage.

Many are surprised to learn that people using food banks generally have an income. Employment is the main source of income. However, if you are “working poor” earning a minimum wage, that income doesn’t go far enough.

Employment Insurance (E.I.), along with social assistance and disability-related supports are other forms of income. But neither is enough to cover necessities like rent, let alone utilities, child care, or transportation. That means eating is sacrificed because it is seen as expendable if you do not want to become unhoused.

To really address poverty and hunger, Canada would need to implement a national living wage, improve access to and levels of E.I., bring social assistance and disability payments up to a living wage, implement a guaranteed livable (basic) income, and close the gender wage gap.

The various levels of government also need to implement $10 a day daycare and to participate in a national affordable housing plan.

A guaranteed livable income and affordable daycare have been in the works for over 52 years. And, with over five decades of research, data and lived, anecdotal experience, we know that both are needed to ensure Canadians have enough money to purchase nutritious food. But as Ebube Ogie has discovered, eradicating food insecurity in Canada is complicated.

“The current principles guiding our food system are neoliberal in nature – we’re feeding the world, but we’re harming our land and despite all of the food in the system, Canadians still don’t have food security, they still hunger,” said Ogie, a master’s researcher in the Sociology and Social Studies department at University of Regina.

Ogie will be joined by Dr. Glenn Sutter, associate professor Dr. Amber Fletcher, and research partners from Heritage Saskatchewan when she shares research findings that identified weaknesses in Canada’s food system during Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Congress 2023) at York University.

The research group is calling for more support for local food production to address pan-Canadian food insecurity.

“Our findings show that our local food systems can really do a lot of good for us as a nation,” Ogie added. “We want to see local food production blossom here by relying on food sovereignty principles and living heritage.”

Ogie will present findings from ongoing interviews with Saskatchewanians living in Muskeg Lake Cree Nation and Val Marie. The study was designed to create a snapshot of Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives on food challenges.

The qualitative study builds on a province-wide survey, conducted from February to June 2022, that showed people in the province have real concerns over food accessibility, affordability, and loss of local knowledge about how food is produced and consumed.

“We’re continuing to hear major concerns about how the prices of food have been rapidly increasing, about the difficulty accessing fresh food from local grocery stores and concerns about the food supply chain,” said Ogie.

Val Marie residents reported difficulty accessing staples like milk and that the removal of railway lines has affected grain production.

“People are telling us that there is an over-reliance on processed and foreign foods, and this affects local knowledge about how food can be produced, preserved, prepared and consumed,” she added.

People living in Muskeg Lake expressed growing concern over the effects of pesticides, chemicals and sprays used by industrial food producers on their land, which is causing them to lose local sources of wild meat and berries. Without a local grocery store, they are forced to travel to nearby communities.

“We have this dominant industrial way of producing food in Canada and this project is shedding light on the value that local cultural practices, local knowledge and living heritage can have when it comes to presenting an alternative,” said Fletcher, who serves as academic director of the university’s Community Engagement and Research Centre (CERC).

“It’s time to challenge the system and put more focus on historically engrained practices that have been passed down from generation to generation, so people learn how to grow food, process food and consume food in ways that are more responsive to what is and can be grown here.”

The researchers are calling for greater emphasis on principles of food sovereignty, which promote active participation from local producers, self-determination and respect for the land while acknowledging local food philosophies and traditions.

Muskeg Lake residents are becoming more self-sufficient through their local food forest, a self-sustaining, nature-inspired agricultural system providing fruits and vegetables as well as medicines and cultural resources. 

Val Marie residents could access fresh foods from a nearby Hutterite Colony and plant their own edible gardens. Both models could be replicated in urban centres to help deal with food apartheids.

“It’s time to stop looking at food as something to maximize profits, and start seeing it as something to consume,” said Ogie. “Saskatchewan is Canada’s bread basket and we want to see that manifested in how we live, how we produce food and how we consume food. Our goal is to end food insecurity and promote food security for everyone.”

A.I.’s role in the gender wage gap

Acquisition and preparation of food along with child care and household chores are predominantly viewed as being part of the undervalued, unpaid work that women do – often after they have worked a full-time job outside their home.

Canadian gender equality researcher Keah Hansen says that even as the global household robot market continues to grow from $6.78 billion in 2022 to a projected $8.12 billion in 2023, artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology will not set women free.

“Robots are just technology, they don’t have a political agenda,” said Hansen, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at York University.

“They may be presented as holding great potential for advancing gender equality and promoting a more equitable distribution of chores, but my study indicates they actually contribute to inequity instead,” added Hansen.

As a featured speaker at Congress 2023, Hansen will share research findings that show house robots extend inequities associated with domestic work.

Her study included Google Home, Amazon, Alexa and Apple Siri, the Roomba floor vacuum, personal assistants like the Asus Zenbo, Amazon Astro and Ingen Dynamics Aido, with prices ranging from $100 to $1,500.

These technologies are often marketed as removing the burden of housework. But the reality is there is no freedom. Instead, these robots underscore existing issues of underpaid, undervalued and marginalized domestic work.

That often starts with the prohibitive cost of these technologies and extends to the fact that house robots still require someone to program, operate and maintain them – all tasks that typically fall to female members of the household or female hired domestic workers.

Hansen also fears that the growing trend to de-gender technology, as a “quick fix,” will simply mask the fact that the majority of unpaid, as well as paid, domestic work is still performed by women.

“House robots aren’t the answer to better pay and fair redistribution of traditional women’s work,” said Hansen. “If anything, they’re obscuring the fact that there’s still work to be done to achieve equity.” 

Hansen examined the historical Wages Against Housework movement from the 1970s and ’80s. Feminist, Marxist activists like Silvia Federici exposed the way capitalist societies refuse to acknowledge or support what she called “reproductive labour,” all the unpaid work that keeps society functioning, yet is often consumed or erased as soon as it is produced.

Reproductive labour includes the labour expanded in gardening, meal preparation, cleaning, and caring for family members who are too young, old, or ill to care for themselves.

At the time, Wage Against Housework encouraged women to demand pay for “doing the dirty work.”

Angela Davis, former Black Panther member, Marxist, feminist political activist, philosopher, and professor at University of California, criticized the theory and did not see paying women as the means to achieving equality.

Davis maintained that women of colour had historically received marginalized wages for the domestic work they performed for others and that the movement only served to reinforce those racial lines creating more inequity.

Davis believes paying for a house robot, just like giving women wages, is a similarly flawed argument for achieving gender equity.

Oxfam reports that women and girls undertake more than three-quarters of unpaid care work in the world and account for two-thirds of the paid care workforce. When valued at minimum wage, that equates to $10.8 trillion annually.

While 80 per cent of the world’s 67 million domestic workers are women, 90 per cent have no social security and over half have no limits on weekly working hours.

In Canada, women spend nearly four hours per day on unpaid work as a primary activity. Men spend 2.5 hours a day performing care work.

“That means, if you’re in your house, with your house robot, it’s still more likely that either the females in the household, or a hired domestic worker, will be the ones managing the robot and doing chores alongside it,” Hansen said. “House robots are not a magic bullet. Despite what we imagine, women’s work continues to be undervalued.” 

Congress 2023 is being hosted at York University from May 27 to June 2, 2023. Community Passes available for $55 provide access to the program of events open to the public.

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...