Ontario has become the battleground for the food insecurity debate in Canada. A pilot project providing low-earning residents a guaranteed income came to a screeching halt under new provincial leadership. Terminating this monetary benefit has left many residents unable to afford their basic nutrition needs.
When discussing the severity of food insecurity with Food Tank, Nick Saul, CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, doesn’t mince words. “We have a crisis on our hands; there’s no other way to put it.” Over 4 million Canadians are food insecure and as prevalence continues to grow, so do the health implications. “Food insecurity is associated with increased risk of nutritional inadequacies, physical and mental health problems, and poorer management of chronic disease,” explained Dr. Valerie Tarasuk and Alissa Klingbaum of PROOF, the University of Toronto’s food insecurity research team, to Food Tank.
“The reason people struggle [with food insecurity] is they don’t have enough income,” says Saul. According to an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the concept of transferring a basic income to those below a certain earning threshold shows real potential to reduce hunger and improve health.
Income-based solutions like the Ontario pilot tend to carry considerable price tags but savings are possible through reduced social assistance and healthcare needs. “The healthcare costs incurred by a severely food insecure adult in Ontario are more than double that of a food secure adult,” says Tarasuk and Klingbaum to Food Tank. Even a group of Canadian CEOs back it as an economic driver, stating “basic income will go right back into local businesses.”
Most programs fighting food insecurity remain food-focused in Canada, despite the problem being more complex than well-intentioned food aid. “The research is clear that emergency food support has zero impact on levels of food insecurity,” says Saul to Food Tank. “[It] creates a moral release valve for all of us; we think that donating a can here or there is the answer but it avoids the real conversation about why people are food insecure in the first place.”
Other proposed solutions like redirecting the immense amount of food wasted in Canada to those in need also fail to address the root causes of food insecurity. They may even regress action to reduce food waste, leading many food recovery organizations to endorse a strictly environmental mission. “It makes sense to divert fresh food for donation,” says Laurel Schut, Co-Director of FOUND Forgotten Food, to Food Tank. “But while FOUND has significant ripple effects to social, health, and economic outcomes, it is problematic to believe that donating food [that would otherwise be wasted] to alleviate food insecurity will fix either issue in the long term.”
In the end, Saul implores us to fight for a country and political system that serves to protect and nourish all citizens. “It is cultural genocide, colonialism, sexism, and racism which disproportionately impact these communities. These are structural issues in society that we have to grapple with,” he says to Food Tank. “We need to think about dignity and health and ensure people have the financial means to make the decisions they need to make around what they put on the table.”