Presentation on: Food Affordability for Consumers
By Charles Seiden
Canadian Association of Food Banks
For Winnipeg Food Security Assembly Panel: The Cost of Food for: the Land, Producers and Consumers
Thursday 14 October, 1:30 – 3 PM
As a former executive director of a child and family center for emotionally disturbed children and families, I’ve experienced firsthand how sectarianism and dissension can undermine potentially effective systems. Much of the work we did was to ensure that communication was open, honest and direct but the systems designed to accomplish our work suffered because people failed to hear each other’s positions.
In the few years that I have been directly involved in food security, I have been quite discouraged at times. It seems there is an inability to find consensus on how to deal with this complex issue. It also seems that it is much easier to demonize food banks as the problem rather than to develop a comprehensive plan that incorporates our definition of the problem and solution. I have seen how counter-productive such polarization can be.
But I’ve also seen what can be achieved if diverse groups go beyond their divisive interests and work together towards a common goal. Recently, I was asked to attend a Brazilian Food Bank Conference. It was coordinated by a group of food banks, urban harvests and Apio Fome Zero. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn about Fome Zero – Brazil’s Food Security Policy. This policy is an excellent example of a democratically developed social policy that utilizes hunger and food security as a platform to combat poverty. It was encouraging to see how Brazil had been able to incorporate a wide variety of solutions to a complex problem like hunger. The result is social policy that is supported by all levels of the Government and NGO’s. Corporations and businesses are being mobilized to support Fome Zero through Apio Fome Zero.
What I saw in Brazil inspired me. I hope that we can create a similar alliance in a spirit of co-operation.
The Canadian Association of Food Banks (CAFB) supports the goals of the 1996 Rome Declaration to ensure food security for all with an immediate aim of reducing the number of undernourished people in the world by half by the year 2015. We also endorse Canada’s Action Plan for Food Security conceived in response to the seven commitments outlined in the World Food Summit’s Plan of Action.
However, commitments to reduce food insecurity have existed since the 1980’s yet food insecurity persists. It’s a subject that has been studied extensively. What is needed now is the articulation of concrete actions and commitments to them by those of us here today. Above all, we need to stop marginalizing ourselves by arguing about the causes of hunger and poverty.
CAFB advocates the reduction of food insecurity on a global basis; however, we are best-suited to address the issue in a domestic context. As a national coalition of organizations which gathers and distributes food to people in need through member food banks, we serve as a liaison between food banks, industry and government.
Over the years, the most salient testimony of food insecurity in Canada that we’ve witnessed is the transition of food banks from being emergency response providers to permanent fixtures in various communities throughout the country. Although we have succeeded in building a more efficient infrastructure to better serve our members over the years, our accomplishments are bittersweet because they are sobering evidence that the number of hungry Canadians continues to grow. This is the paradox of our existence.
Every year CAFB conducts HungerCount, a study of trends in food bank use across the Canada. Since the first HungerCount in 1989, food bank use has mushroomed. Although HungerCount is an indirect measure of food insecurity and therefore underestimates the extent of hunger in Canada, it does provide an important window into the multi-faceted reality of hunger. In the latest study, we find that Canada’s most vulnerable continue to be the ones experiencing food insecurity, including children, who are the most susceptible to the adverse cognitive and developmental effects of hunger. The frequency with which people are using food banks indicates that even in a period of general economic growth and with an abundance of food that exists in Canada, hunger throughout the country continues unabated.
Food Insecurity: An Income Issue
The topic I’ve been asked to talk about is food affordability for consumers. When looking at the issue of the cost of food in the context of the social problem of hunger, what usually follows is an examination of the high cost of good quality food. The problem of obesity and nutrition-related diseases among vulnerable Canadians has been well-documented, underscoring the need to make nutritious food more accessible to all. Even though there is enough evidence suggesting that food insecurity is a manifestation of financial hardship, policies designed to address food insecurity essentially treats it as a food problem.
I would like to approach this topic by focusing on the inability of individuals and families to purchase high quality food. From this premise, food insecurity is essentially an issue of income, or lack thereof. Looking at food as a commodity lends more coherence to this perspective.
Bringing market prices down as remedial action against a system that entrenches the marginalization of the poor runs counter to the laws of a liberal market economy. Given the global nature of trade and capital, this is neither a viable nor a long-term solution. It also trivializes the poor. Instead, when devising policy addressing food insecurity in Canada, it is essential that the overriding objective not be to protect economically vulnerable Canadians from the market but to ensure ways that they can participate more fully and equally – namely, that they be able to afford good quality food at market prices. It is the difference between acknowledging their plight and acknowledging their potential. The latter adheres more to our philosophy of promoting the dignity and empowerment of the disenfranchised.
How do we go about achieving this? Hunger, as we know, is a symptom of broader structural forces that sustain the marginalization of the poor. We need to effectively eradicate these conditions that create hunger. When looking at the socio-demographic characteristics of Canadians who visit food banks, namely, low-income, single parent status, old age, receipt of social assistance benefits and unemployment, we see a strong economic correlation. The majority of those who suffer food insecurity are the ones depending on social assistance. Hungry Canadians rely on emergency food programs to meet their immediate need of putting food on the table. But there is also the long-term need of improving their life quality so that they are more self-sufficient and able to put healthy food on their tables; yet our current safety net measures fall short of achieving this. Economic security is an important precursor to permanent food security in Canada.
Hunger and Food Insecurity in Canada
The 90s saw a period of re-structuring of social programs such as the implementation of the GST and the downsizing of government. These changes have been followed by the expansion of poverty, falling real wages, a growing income gap and rising levels of food insecurity. Responses to food insecurity in Canada have largely been ad hoc, community-based initiatives, indicating the absence of a coherent national or provincial food security strategy. In spite of its growing prevalence, efforts to curtail the spread of hunger have remained at the local level. But keeping the discourses of hunger-resolution at the community level does more harm than good for it obscures the identification of policy changes by national and provincial governments that affect income security and consequently, food security, within households.
Recent federal initiatives have exacerbated these phenomena of deepening poverty and spreading hunger in Canada, specifically, the introduction of the Employment Insurance Act and of the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) which replaced the pre-existing Canada Assistance Plan. The CHST was recently split into the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) and the Canada Social Transfer (CST). These programs have had the most direct impact on food security in Canadian households.
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The surplus of unpaid EI premiums is now almost $50 billion and is being used to pay down the federal debt rather than to improve the benefits of the workers who paid into it. Since eligibility criteria have been tightened, only 35% of unemployed workers are able to qualify for EI benefits compared to more than 80% about a decade ago, according to the Canadian Labor Congress. Women, youth and seasonal workers have been hardest hit by the changes. Canadians in various regions throughout the country continue to be negatively impacted by EI restrictions, which thereby affect the level of food security in households. This reinforces the fact that assistance recipients need help in making a successful, permanent transition into the labor force, since many food bank clients are well educated but still unemployed.
Although the federal government fulfilled its promise of separating the CHST into two funding streams in April 2004, the current CST remains flawed. It exists as a block fund that lumps funding for post-secondary education with funding for social assistance and social services. In the absence of specific allocations of funds for each area, cash transfers for post-secondary education and social services have declined by $1.86 billion and $3.35 billion, respectively, while transfers for health have increased by $1.29 billion. Furthermore, there are no requirements for provinces to ensure that welfare rates are adequate to meet basic needs or to provide social assistance on the basis of need; as a result, the wide gap between the poverty line and welfare incomes has remained essentially unchanged. (Campaign 2000:2004)
According to a report by the National Council of Welfare (2004), between 1986 and 2003, no province or territory managed to provide welfare benefits that enabled welfare recipients to reach the poverty line – the highest rates ever achieved were still significantly below the poverty line. Generally, welfare incomes last year deteriorated as a result of cuts, freezes and inflation. Severe cuts in welfare rates in British Columbia, for example, have involved the placement of time limits on welfare provisions. This policy sets a threatening precedent, further demonstrating why minimum national standards for welfare are needed. With the exception of Newfoundland and New Brunswick, Canada’s provinces and territories made little effort to increase welfare rates by putting in any of their own money. (National Council of Welfare: 2003)
One of the federal initiatives that have contributed to the steady erosion of welfare incomes is the clawback of the federal National Child Benefit Supplement (NCBS) by provincial governments. Allowing provinces to retract funds from families receiving the federal benefit precludes them from enjoying the intended gains and, furthermore, clearly discriminates against those dependent on welfare. In another National Council of Welfare report in 2001, it was found that 66% of poor families with children actually benefited from the federal child tax benefit between June 1998 and June 1999; only 79% of poor two-parent families actually received the supplement and only 57% of poor single-parent families were allowed to keep the benefits. Moreover, the report asserts that since women head most single-parent families, gender discrimination is also a factor in this issue. (National Council of Welfare (Executive Summary): 2003)
Income is unequivocally an important variable when considering food insecurity. Our HungerCount data reveal that the number of “working poor” who rely on food banks continues to grow; this suggests that low wages are a causal factor in food insecurity. Canada is second in the world after the U.S. as a low-wage country among industrialised nations.The Caledon Institute found that in most cases minimum-wage earners fall far below Statistics Canada’s “low-income cut-off.”
Recommendations to the Canadian Government
Our research has shown us time and again that diverse circumstances lead to food insecurity. Diverse and comprehensive policy measures are therefore needed to effectively address this issue; such measures would respond to the underlying poverty and structural inequalities that engender hunger. But this falls beyond the grasp of charitable, community organizations and, instead, lies within the jurisdiction of governments. The calibration of social assistance to economic costs is the main philosophy guiding CAFB’s policy recommendations to the Canadian government.
In keeping with the Canadian government’s commitment, through various international agreements, to the right to food, the right to housing and the right to an adequate standard of living, we strongly urge the federal government to begin in earnest to address poverty and inequality in Canada. Rather than adopting piecemeal initiatives, the federal government must utilize a holistic public policy approach which would include specific, concrete and measurable objectives with accompanying timelines to measure progress. With the aim of improving domestic food security, we strongly urge the Canadian government to take the following seven steps to increase Canadians’ economic access to food:
Split the Canada Social Transfer (CST) into separate funding streams for post-secondary education and welfare to ensure greater transparency and accountability in federal transfers and enhance investments in the CST.
Raise the federal minimum wage and establish a federal/provincial commission to make recommendations on how to improve the availability of “living wage” jobs. Establish a policy to ensure that government contracts are awarded to companies that provide living wage jobs.
Reform the Employment Insurance program to ensure that workers who pay into the program are able to access their own benefits in the event of job loss.
Reduce the number of hours needed to qualify for EI to 350 and restore benefits to two-thirds of eligible salary.
Continue to increase the NCB to a maximum of $4, 900 by 2007.
Enact legislation that prevents provincial governments from clawing back the National Child Benefit Supplement (NCBS) from the poorest families in the country.
Alternately, the federal government could consolidate the benefits, thereby eliminating the clawback while creating a comprehensive child benefit system for Canada.
Develop a national housing strategy that will commit the Canadian government to develop 25,000 units of affordable housing annually.
Commit at least $2 billion annually for the next five years in affordable housing initiatives.
Increase allocation to early learning and child care services to $6 billion by 2008 with the goal of ensuring quality, universally accessible/affordable and developmentally – focused services.
Create a national anti-poverty law that would:
End inappropriate reliance on charitable organizations, volunteer efforts and individual generosity to deal with the needs of hungry citizens and children.
Enshrine the right to food in domestic law, which would be consistent with the Canadian government’s commitment to the right to food in international law through United Nations Treaties.
Mahatma Gandhi said that poverty is the worst form of violence. Violence in the conventional sense in Canada is a crime. Hunger, a classic symptom of poverty, is an assault on individuals and communities with far-reaching consequences; yet it goes unpunished for it is a crime that the very institutions conceived to serve and protect the people indirectly sanction through ill-conceived policies and inaction. Hunger is a crime for which there is no jury, no legal recourse, no just desserts for the victims. If we do nothing, we are all complicit in this crime against humanity.
This assembly has brought together a diverse group of people, from the grassroots to policy makers. It is from this common ground that a collective voice for new public awareness strategies can be developed. Food banks are willing to work together to develop a Canadian food security plan if our beliefs can be incorporated in this collaborative effort. We believe that only a comprehensive and inclusive approach will guarantee victory in the battle against hunger.
Campaign 2000 (May, 2004). Pathways to Progress: Structural Solutions to Address
Child Poverty. Policy Perspectives.
National Council of Welfare (July, 2004). Welfare Incomes 2003. Volume 121,
Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
Ibid. (July, 2004). Welfare Incomes 2003 Executive Summary. Volume 121,
Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
Tarasuk, Valerie & Joan M. Eakin. Household Food Insecurity and Food Assistance in
Canada: Obscured Need and Misdirected Effort. Department of Nutritional
Sciences, Faculty of Medicine. University of Toronto.