Opinions 03/28/2018

This is the text of a talk given by Nick Saul, President and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, at the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security's Food Security Symposium on March 28, 2018, in Toronto. 

Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words today about food insecurity in Canada as well as suggest some ideas on what we can do—both individually and collectively—about this growing problem.  

For those of you who don’t know much or anything about Community Food Centres Canada, we’re a national organization that supports and builds vibrant, food-focused community centres in low-income neighbourhoods. We’re currently in 65 cities and towns across the country. Our work is anchored by delicious, healthy food and by our strong belief that food is a basic human right. We think that no one should ever be made to feel smaller because they need help. We also believe that food is a powerful force for creating health, inclusion and justice. 

I think a lot of people in this room share these sentiments, though we may not all approach the issues in the same way. Still, I really like this mixed crowd– people from community, business, philanthropic organizations, academia, government. In fact, I think that it’s in rooms like this, full of diverse voices and perspectives – some might even say unlikely allies – where good ideas can be developed and action accelerated.  

Thanks to the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security for convening us today, Michael for your important opening remarks and to all of you for your commitment to building a better nation. 
 
I’m not going to mince words: food insecurity in Canada is at a crisis level. How else to describe the four million of our fellow citizens who are unsure when they’ll eat next, or who are missing meals so their kids can eat? That’s thirteen per cent of our population. And if you’re black, this number soars to 29%. If you’re a lone female parent, it’s 33%. If you happen to be Inuit living in Nunavut, it’s 55%. Across the country, 1 in 6 kids live in a food insecure household. No matter how you slice it, in an abundant country like ours, this is a disaster of massive proportions.  

And yet, as difficult as these figures are to hear, let alone make sense of, they don’t come close to conveying the depth and far-reaching impact of the problem we face as a country. They don’t come close to revealing the day-to-day reality for millions of people who, through no fault of their own, are leading diminished lives full of anxiety and stress. The over a million children whose future health and well-being is being compromised by inadequate access to nutritious food. 

Frankly, it’s hard to be proud of a country that leaves so many behind.  

And yet, I don’t think most Canadians have a clue about how poor so many of their neighbours are or understand the kind of compromises people are forced to make due to a lack of income. People like Kate, a community member at The Table CFC in Perth, Ontario. She experienced a head injury and had to leave her job. Once she’d depleted her RRSPs, she was forced to declare bankruptcy. She came into the centre because after a lifetime of working and saving she was tapped out. She couldn’t afford to eat. She knew that there was no way she could continue the long road to recovery when her sole focus was food. Or Marsha, who uses the NorWest CFC in Winnipeg. She is Metis and a single mom of two kids, one of whom is deaf. Her other daughter has serious intellectual challenges. Marsha, herself, suffers from anxiety after years of spousal abuse. She struggles to feed the kids and herself on her disability cheque. Or Nicole, who immigrated from St. Lucia as a 25 year old single mom, worked as a housekeeper, a telemarketer and caregiver for the elderly, but with rent and childcare costs she still has trouble making ends meet. 

All of these stories make me think of an old postcard from a campaign we did many years ago that I keep on my bulletin board as a reminder of what we’re working for. On the front, one of our community members catalogued his modest monthly expenses for rent, food, transportation, telephone and a haircut, then subtracted his income to come up with a negative of $400. On the back he wrote: “Life sucks.” 

For many of the people who access our CFCs, life does in fact suck a lot of the time. They live in inadequate housing or don’t have a home at all. They couch surf from friend to family member and back, eat the cheapest and, as a result, unhealthiest food available. Many can’t afford public transportation and are forced to walk or simply miss important appointments. They’re isolated, lonely and, in far too many cases, their health is suffering.  

These people aren’t a bit poor. They are a lot poor, and the consequences are grave. And not just for their own health, but for our society as a whole.  

Think about the lost productivity, absenteeism, crime and family violence, ballooning health care budgets and children who may never have a chance to live up to their potential.  

And all this at a time when the wealthiest among us are getting wealthier. The richest people in this country hold 2/3 of all the wealth while the poorest 5th of Canadians have no wealth at all.  

It’s alarming on many fronts. In nationwide polls, Canadians across the political spectrum overwhelmingly say they don’t believe this is the way they want their country to be. They’d like to see greater income equality and more equitable distribution of wealth. They understand that more equal societies are healthier, more connected and more economically stable.  

So, you might be wondering, what does all this have to do with food?  

Well, after years of working with low-income people in our community food centres, supporting people to eat healthier, learn food skills, make connections and find engagement, I would never say that our programs are solving food insecurity.  

Don’t get me wrong: our work is important and necessary, even life-saving. We bring people together, make them feel less isolated and more confident. We support them to understand the connection between their physical and mental health and the food they eat. We createopportunities for community members to speak out on the issues that affect them every day. People tell us often that the support they receive at CFCs and the relationships they build there give them something essential for the possibility of change: hope.  

But no front-line program, whether it’s community kitchens or urban gardens, food banks or meal programs are going to make an individual or a family food secure. 

That’s because food insecurity is not a food problem. We have plenty of food. People are food insecure because they can't afford to eat. 

This is why food charity—in the form of food banks and waste redistribution—has never managed to make a dent in the number of people who are food insecure in this country, or anywhere else in the world. In fact, food handouts fail to have long-lasting impact because throwing food at the problem doesn’t address the real issue.  

Food insecurity is about low wages and precarious work. It’s about inadequate welfare rates. It’s about pensions that don’t cover the bills. It’s about expensive housing, the high price of medicine and the lack of affordable child care.  

The only way we’re going to make inroads on reducing or, dare I say, eradicating food insecurity, is if we keep our sights set firmly on increasing people’s income so they can make the choices they need to make to keep their fridges full.   

When we begin to shift this lens—away from food and food handouts—and frame food insecurity as a lack of income, everything changes.  

We’re no longer discussing such downstream juggling acts as how to get excess cucumbers to the poor before they spoil or how to transport pallets of mislabelled canned vegetables into the emergency food system. Instead, we’re doing upstream thinking that confronts the root causes.  

And that means pushing for real change through progressive public policy and forging a new economy that does a better job of sharing its wealth. 

So what does this mean for all of us in this room? One thing is certain: if we’re going to turn the Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security’s goal of reducing food insecurity by 50% by 2030 into something real and doable, then we all have our work cut out for us.  

Those of you from the business sector will be interested to know that according to Health Canada more than 60% of food insecure households are attached to the labour market. These are working people like Nicole and Kate with wages and salaries. I guess it’s not terribly surprising given that precarious employment in a place like Toronto has increased by 50% in the last two decades, and minimum wages, in spite of some movement of late, still trap people well below the poverty line.  

Yet it makes absolutely no sense to me that we have built an economy so dependent on poorly paid jobs that millions of employed people can’t put food on their table. How can this be a sustainable model for business to have your workers—your most prized resource—barely scraping by? Such employees are less healthy, less productive, less happy and less effective. Not to mention, they don’t have the income to grease the wheels of the economy that your company depends on.  

That’s just bad for business and, of course, truly destructive for society as a whole.  

Like most Canadians, I believe we need to prioritize wealth redistribution both thru the tax system and by insisting corporations take care of their workers—on the wage front, yes, but also by reducing the precarity of work—prioritizing full-time employment, investing in training and exceeding employment standards through, for example, more paid sick days and covering drug and dental benefits. The best Corporate Social Responsibility strategy a company can have is one that starts with fair work practises and paying liveable wages with good benefits.   

Of course, not all companies find this an easy pill to swallow.  

But fortunately, there are more and more examples of businesses bucking the race-to-the-bottom mentality. The rise of the B corporation is just one example of how a new wave of entrepreneurs are re-thinking the economy. They are driven, in part, by a growing number of consumers who are asking searching questions about business practices and are willing to pay more for a product that takes into account the environment and worker well-being. But we also need leadership from more mainstream businesses that understand if we are going to avoid social and environmental collapse brought on by inequality and an unfettered pursuit of profit, we have to make some serious changes to the way we do things.  

There’s no question in my mind that if we can have a company like Maple Leaf Foods publicly talking about eating less meat and rethinking where our protein comes from, then surely we can find leaders in the corporate community to talk about sharing our collective wealth so that we can forge a stronger, more productive and healthier nation. 

This will demand real vision, and difficult but absolutely necessary conversations at board tables, shareholder meetings and with government across the country—and around the world. But if reducing food insecurity is our north star, then these are some of the uncomfortable truths that the business sector needs to grapple with. Donating food to the next food drive simply isn’t enough any more.  

My colleagues and I in the non-profit sector also have much work to do. NGOs, like the many fine organizations represented here today, are on the coal face of supporting those living in poverty. We work with the most marginalized people in our country. Every day we see the struggles and challenges our community members face.  

But we have tended to get caught up in the hamster wheel of service, failing to make the leap from helping individuals and communities to the larger political work of pushing for changes—on both the public policy front and in society at large—that will make people’s lives better. 

It’s no wonder: Front-line work is difficult and demanding and the people who work in our organizations can be swamped by the pressing needs of the communities they serve. 

But we can’t forget that this work and the stories and voices we surface there give fuel to the call for change. We can’t forget that if we truly want to support the people we work with and make a substantial difference in their lives, we must marry this important front-line programming with advocacy. We must speak out with the people in our communities.  People like Nicole, the single mom from St. Lucia, who, with the help of her CFC, found her voice on the issues that matter to her and has turned into an articulate and powerful advocate for herself and others living in poverty. Together, we must push for our core values—like dignity, inclusion, respect and justice—to be articulated in policy and law. 

In the past, many of us in the NGO world have been afraid of engaging on the policy or political level. The “charity chill” experienced under previous governments (which targeted organizations committing time and effort to advocacy) has had a genuine impact on the sector as a whole. This, despite the fact that most charitable organizations in Canada never get anywhere close to using the 10 per cent maximum of their resources for such purposes.  

But now is the time. We mustn’t be afraid any longer. The stakes are too high.  

We need to build goals of social change into the DNA of our organizations. That means including it in our programs, our mission statements and visioning—making sure it is at the core of who we are. Boards, of course, are critical. We must seek out people who reflect ourcommunities and who understand that their job is to drive forward our vision of a more equitable, sustainable country. We also need to find ways to support staff to move beyond their programs—as vital as they are—to become engaged with other networks and organizations working toward larger structural transformation.  

I believe that we will be most effective if we as a sector, do this work together, pooling resources and getting behind one another’s campaigns. Some campaigns your organization will lead, some you’ll support, but all of it will be aimed at 
building the kind of community and country we all want to see.  

Indeed, I feel certain that we’ll also find allies like many of the people and businesses here today who understand their future and our collective future is in the balance.  

We can all be bolstered by work from the academic research team at PROOF, showing over and over that increasing income can reduce food insecurity. In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, PROOF reveals how a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy that involves better social assistance rates and indexing them to inflation helped reduce food insecurity by almost half in five years. Or the evidence showing that once you turn 65, your likelihood of experiencing food insecurity decreases by 50% because of old age security and the guaranteed income supplement.  

Early information coming in from the Basic Income Pilot in Ontario is also encouraging on this front with people indicating that their health and sense of well-being is already improving dramatically. 

The data is clear. When people have more secure, consistent and adequate incomes, their food security increases. 

Food isn’t the answer but the answer is right in front of us. If we want to eliminate food insecurity and its negative consequences for individuals, communities and society we need to fight poverty. We need to push companies for better wages and benefits and we need to push government to establish the kinds of social and economic policies that allow people to live dignified and productive lives. 

If we’re serious about achieving the ambitious goals set by the Maple Leaf Centre, we need to use this gathering as a springboard for a concrete plan with measurable outcomes on poverty reduction that will have a real impact on food insecurity. We’ll need to prioritize some key demands with signatories from all sectors, and commit resources to moving them forward.  

Government and business both move through pressure from all of us, and if they’re slow to move on tackling poverty, it’s partly because we haven’t brought enough heat. Now is the time, with citizens increasingly demanding more and the National Poverty Reduction Strategy and National Food Policy in play at the federal level.  

Let’s continue to build a fire under politicians and corporate leaders so they understand that this matters to Canadians. Together, we can help move the dial on this fundamental issue and make a real difference in the lives of people like Nicole and Kate, Marsha and their children. Together we can make life better for millions of Canadians who don’t have a dignified seat at the table but most definitely have a right to one.