Our food issues are so much bigger than overpriced cauliflower

Sunday, February 21, 2016
We’ve fielded several calls lately from journalists working on stories about rising food prices. You've probably read a few: most aim to provide quick tips for how Canadians can make a dollar go further in the grocery store, and how to eat healthy for less.
 
Many of those tips are helpful: buy in season and in bulk, soak your beans, get comfortable with a few empty-the-fridge recipes that can help you cut down food waste. Making the most of what you’ve got is always good practice, especially when what you’ve got is not a lot. And eating well doesn't have to be complicated. These are ideas that underpin the many healthy cooking and growing programs offered by our partner Community Food Centres. When a few good ideas or skills can make the difference, making changes is easy.  
 
But for the people we work with, most of whom are living on woefully inadequate incomes, making small changes isn’t the issue. Single Ontarians on social assistance have just over $600/month to cover all their living expenses, including rent and food – a pittance that causes many to have to go without food, or to access a food bank or meal program. People in low-paying jobs with no benefits struggle too. There’s lots people can do to eat well on a limited budget – in fact, studies show that the lower someone’s income is, the more likely they are to cook from scratch – but no amount of bean-soaking can bridge the income gap for the four million food insecure Canadians who struggle to put food on their table at any price. 
 
What we as a country need to talk more about is how poor our fellow Canadians are, and how inured to that fact we’ve become. The conversation we need to have is about the inadequacy of our existing social policies – we need to examine the legacy of cuts that have left so many without access to food in a country of plenty, and the lasting impacts that inequality has on people's physical and mental health: rates of Type 2 diabetes, for example, are more than four times higher in the low income group than in the highest. We need to be asking why, in a country as bountiful and rich as Canada, our driving focus often seems to be doing more with less.
 
If we really want to ensure that everyone can afford and access good food, the policies we need to consider are as varied and complex as the issues in play.  For one, we need to ensure that farmers can continue to grow a diverse range of foods rather than expanding our current fixation on chemical-dependent commodity crops aimed for export. So many of our agricultural policies are driving us into a situation where dependence on imports makes us highly vulnerable to the weather in California and the changing value of our dollar. We need to keep our prime land in use for farming and ensure that farmers find it viable to grow on that land. And while we’re at it, let’s stop fixating on how to get to cheaper and cheaper food and instead use this moment as a springboard for a conversation about the true cost of producing food and what environmental and social costs we’re deferring when our sole focus is on driving down prices. 
 
The food price issue is also woven into a much larger suite of issues related to poverty.  We need to start holding the government to account to build an equitable food system. There were some promising directives in the mandate letters Prime Minister Trudeau issued to his ministers: a national anti–poverty strategy, a national food policy, and a call for Indigenous and Northern Affairs to address the serious problem of food insecurity in the north. There are also voices from many quarters calling the government to examine the potential of a basic income policy to address poverty — a direction we’ve supported as a promising way forward.
 
But none of these policy ideas – ideas that genuinely have the potential to significantly shift our social landscape – will see the light of day unless there’s political will to make them happen. Governmental silos, a lack of willingness to invest the resources required, and the fear that championing the poor is a political liability are just a few of the factors that could undermine that will.
 
“I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Those words, spoken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to civil rights organizer A. Philip Randolph more than 70 years ago, are running through our heads these days. We need to seize the opportunity offered by the signs of hope we’re seeing to make sure the momentum for change keeps growing. Food prices will continue to rise and fall, but lamenting the price of the latest expensive vegetable distracts us from the complex and system-wide policies and community mobilizing that we need to have in place to truly ensure that good food, produced sustainably by fairly paid farmers, is not a luxury, but a basic human right for all Canadians.
 
 
 
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