It is clear that the attempts to address food insecurity by providing food are missing the mark – because, frankly, it is not about food at all
A bag of free groceries can make a real difference for someone struggling financially. With the costs of food skyrocketing, more and more Canadians are now turning to food banks or distribution hubs to access free food supports to help feed their families. Staff and volunteers work hard to transport, sort, bag and distribute food, providing immediate relief to individuals experiencing food insecurity. Unfortunately, the relief is short-lived – the resource-intensive operation must repeat itself, over and and over again, to continue providing food to “those in need”, with no end in sight. Let’s pause for a moment and consider what IS the need? While food does satisfy immediate hunger, but if we are talking about addressing food insecurity, ironically, food is NOT the answer.
It’s all about the money: Food insecurity= high food costs + inadequate incomes
Food insecurity, described as the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet, quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so (Health Canada, 2020). Food security is achieved when:
- There’s a reliable supply of sufficient quality and quantity (food availability)
- Individuals and households have adequate resources to obtain appropriate food (food access)
- Food is nutritious and can be adequately metabolized by the body (utilization)
- There is permanent and durable access to food (stability)
In the capitalist economy, the sad, nevertheless, accurate, reality is that the most common way for us to acquire food, particularly in an urban setting, is by going to a grocery store. In Vancouver,, availability of food is not a major concern – save for supply chain disruptions, grocery stores’ shelves are well-stocked. Yet, many people are still not able to access it as it is not affordable: the food costs do not match the incomes. This is where we start talking about food insecurity. In developed countries, food insecurity is a strongest indicator of economic deprivation: food is one of the first expenses to be compromised on when one is struggling financially.
The food cost inflation is beating the records, topping up news headlines for the second year in a row, with no signs of slowing down. All the while, the incomes are playing a perpetual catch-up game with the costs of living, in no particular rush to level up. As a result, the rates of food insecurity in Canada are growing: in the latest report, by PROOF – the leading research program on food insecurity in the country, has found that 1 in 6 people in Canada live in food insecure households, which is a dramatic increase from the pre-pandemic statistics of 1 out of 8 people. Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks’ food provision programs are at capacity with long waitlists. We receive inquiries on a daily basis from community members on where they can find food support, or organizations wondering where they can refer people as they are struggling to keep up with the demand.
To ensure reliable and consistent food access – i.e. food security, food must be affordable to people: food prices and people’s ability to pay them should find a common ground. To overcome the current mismatch, the answer seems to be straightforward: lower the food costs or increase people’s purchasing power. Food insecurity then becomes less about food, and all about the money.
Food banks are not THE solution to food insecurity
Food banks were initially introduced as a temporary [emphasis added] relief measure in Canada in the 1980’s as a response to the economic recession. Food banks do play a critical role in providing an immediate life-saving relief during acute emergencies. In Canada, however, they became the primary and permanent public response to food insecurity, receiving continuous support by policy-makers and funders (BC Government just recently announced a $40M investment to support food bank programs). Academics and food justice activists speak out against normalizing the food bank model as the sole solution to food insecurity: in the absence of alternative responses, the charity model removes the pressure from the government to address the underlying causes of food insecurity by offering an income-based public policy response. Celebrating pounds of food distributed as the solution to food insecurity, creates a dangerous illusion of progress, while having no real impact on people’s certainty that they will be able to put food on the table tomorrow. It is clear that the attempts to address food insecurity by providing food are missing the mark – because, frankly, it is not about food at all.
BIG solution: Anti-poverty policy and the case for Basic Income Guarantee
While there is a growing movement to entirely de-commodify food production and distribution by removing profit incentive and to recognize the Right to Food as a human right, for the purposes of this blog post, we will focus on the income side of food insecurity.
With a recognition that household food insecurity in Canada is closely tied to financial constraints, food justice advocates are unanimously calling for long-term anti-poverty policies that put money in people’s pockets and increase their purchasing power. While the recently announced one-time grocery rebate was a welcome relief to lower-income Candians, it was, predictably, not enough. Social policies aimed at improving financial circumstances of lower-income households in the long run, such as federal and provincial income transfer programs (e.g. public pension system, child benefits, and increase to the minimum wage) have been shown to help alleviate food insecurity. However, the patchwork of social support programs is complex and difficult to navigate. Strict eligibility requirements and means-testing are stigmatizing and lead to perverse incentives: afraid of losing their benefits, people are discouraged to work, while clawbacks are frustrating and met with a sentiment “I just can’t win!”
Basic income guarantee (BIG) establishes an income floor that eliminates the risk of falling into poverty. While universally available, it is income-tested and delivered to those who need it, regardless of their work status. The goal of a BIG is to provide a safety net that ensures everyone has access to a basic level of financial security. The amount of the guaranteed income is typically set at a level that ensures that every person has enough to cover their basic needs, such as food, housing, and healthcare.
One of the potential benefits of a BIG is that it can reduce poverty and inequality, as it provides a minimum level of income to everyone. Additionally, a BIG can also provide a sense of financial security and freedom, as it enables people to meet their basic needs and pursue their goals without worrying about the negative financial consequences of losing their job or facing other financial setbacks. BIG also provides wider societal benefits: stimulating economy, promoting social inclusion and participation, encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation.
We recognize Basic Income Guarantee as a bold, system-changing idea, which will require a strong political will and wide public support to be adopted. However, Canada is not a stranger to basic income: both BIG experiments in Manitoba in 1970’s and in Ontario, later in 2017-2019, have demonstrated that BIG significantly improves lives of people living in poverty. The pilot project reports suggested participants saw improvements in mental health, housing stability and social relationships, along with less frequent visits to doctors, without significant work disincentives. The main areas where labour market participation did decrease were for young men who were able to complete high school instead of having to work to support their families and parents temporarily caring for their young children.
Currently, the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, represents a form of guaranteed livable basic income and has been shown to reduce food insecurity in the senior population. Most recently, the success of Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which represented an unconditional cash transfer as a temporary solution to the economic challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, convinced many that a permanent Basic Income program could provide more effective and sustainable support for individuals and families experiencing poverty and economic insecurity in the long run. If food insecurity is, in large part, about the money – let’s start giving people money!
VNFN: Satisfying hunger today AND addressing food security for tomorrow
We recognize that the road towards long-term, sustainable change that addresses the root cause of food insecurity is long and winded, but people are hungry today – and we believe that continuing to provide food remains important. But we can do it better! Food banking model has been criticized for a number of good reasons, including lack of choice and dignity, stigma and shame – people experiencing food insecurity often express a shared sentiment “I would rather go hungry than go to a food bank”.
Alternative food provision models rooted in community care and food justice values of personal choice and dignity have been proven effective in satisfying acute food security needs. A number of Neighbourhood Food Networks offer place-based food distribution programs that provide healthy, culturally appropriate foods, according to nutritional needs and preferences, while prioritizing relationship-building and providing wrap-around services and much-needed social connection. These programs include community fridges, low-cost community markets, bulk buying initiatives, community meals and kitchen programs, farmers markets coupons. We encourage you to connect with your local Neighbourhood Food Network to get involved!
While working to meet acute hunger needs in our communities, we take decisive steps towards addressing food insecurity for all in the long run. Building on the neighbourhoods’ efforts through a broad networked and collaborative approach, VNFN works on forming a collective voice city-wide to better address food policy issues on a more systemic level. Most recently, Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks are bringing together 21 other local food organizations in an organizing effort to affect policy and systemic change in the area of food security and justice. We assert the need for more effective community driven, collaborative and cross-sectoral organizational structures that support participatory food systems policy development, advocacy and food systems change led by community knowledge. We call for upstream solutions to food insecurity – and Basic Income Guarantee is one of them. All are welcome to join this growing food justice movement. We meet every two months on the first Tuesday of the month, 3:00 pm – 5:30 pm. Next meeting: Tuesday, June 6th. For more information email us firstname.lastname@example.org