On April 24, our CEO Nick Saul and Senior Specialist, Policy Sasha McNicoll joined the Finance Committee to discuss the federal government’s COVID response. They talked about how we can work together to better support workers and the unemployed, and how we can come out of this crisis a more just and equitable society.
Read Nick’s remarks below.
Good afternoon. Thanks for the invitation to speak today. My name is Nick Saul, I’m the CEO of Community Food Centres Canada.
CFCC builds health, belonging and social justice in marginalized communities across the country through the power of food. With our national network of 200 organizations we work to eradicate poverty and food insecurity and to improve the well-being of low-income Canadians. Eight-three per cent of the people we serve have incomes below the low income measure, 37 per cent are unemployed, and 24 per cent are on disability benefits.
I’d like to thank you and the hard-working public servants who’ve responded so quickly to ensure that as many Canadians as possible receive the financial support they need to get through this crisis. I’d also like to thank Julie Dzerowicz, our Member of Parliament, for being such a strong champion of our work.
We are grateful for the $5 million in funding we received from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to help organizations from coast to coast to coast provide emergency food assistance to the hardest-hit Canadians.
These funds have had an immediate positive impact. According to Erin Beagle, the Executive Director of Roots to Harvest in Thunder Bay, “there was a lot of uncertainty before, but the funding that came in from CFCC through the federal government allowed us to say, okay, we have the capacity to do this….it gave some certainty in a time when there is so much uncertainty. It’s a relief to people who are already vulnerable and living in poverty. I feel really good about being able to say that we’re here, and it wouldn’t have been possible [without this funding].”
Having said this, we know there are millions of Canadians who are in distress. There is much work to do to tackle the ever deepening food insecurity crisis. Our partner Community Food Centre in Montreal, The Depot, for example, has seen 110 new applicants for their services per day—as many as they normally handle in a month—and has already spent half their annual food budget in a single month.
Long before the COVID crisis hit, 4.4 million—or one in eight—Canadians were food insecure. Of these people, 65 percent are employed but are still not making enough money to put good food on their table. Precarious work—low pay, few hours, no benefits—is unfortunately the norm for millions of workers, particularly women, young people and racialized communities. And nearly a third of people suffering from food insecurity have incomes above the low income measure: even for those who have what is considered sufficient income, the cost of living across much of the country makes it impossible to make ends meet.
Recent research we conducted shows that food insecurity pervades all aspects of people’s lives. It takes a toll on their physical and mental health, increases social isolation and cultural exclusion, erodes relationships with loved ones, and creates irreparable harm to the lives of children. These realities cost us billions of dollars each year.
The measures in the federal government’s Economic Response Plan—notably the Canada Economic Response Benefit—are a life raft for the many Canadians who have lost their jobs because of the COVID crisis. But we need to continue to find ways to reach people who are still struggling. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has surfaced, 1.4 million unemployed Canadians have not received income support from EI or the CERB in April.
We were pleased to see the GST/HST credit top-up, which will be invaluable to low- and modest-income Canadians. We hope, as this crisis continues, to see another top-up when people receive payments again in July.
In better times, our work is about bringing people together around good food rather than providing them with basic groceries in isolation.
While we are proud to be able to help our partners pivot toward providing emergency food assistance to hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are in urgent need, we cannot continue to rely in ordinary times on what should only be an emergency charitable response to provide what should be seen as the basic necessities of life. Like the CERB, any new benefits should start at a level where they create stability by providing a basic income floor below which people cannot fall. That kind of income policy is what should be investigated as it holds the greatest potential for building greater equity as we emerge from COVID-19.
It’s imperative that we continue to use our federal tax system to support people adequately at all stages of life—for example by making the Disability Tax Credit refundable, as we suggested in our pre-budget submission. As well, we need to build on the support offered by the Canada Child Benefit, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and to complement them further by better supporting low-income working-age adults by increasing the Canada Workers Benefit. For working Canadians, we need policies that address precarious employment and drive toward creating better jobs with higher wages and benefits. Together, these approaches will bring us closer to meeting Canada’s legal obligation to deliver on the right to food for its citizens.
Societies that reduce inequality increase productivity, educational success, and health and well-being. We all benefit from working to create a more just economy and social supports that help people to participate and bounce back. This will also help inoculate ourselves from future shocks that are bound to come.
Again, thank you for your time and for your hard work in these difficult times. My colleague Sasha McNicoll and I look forward to answering your questions and to continue to work with you to build a more equitable Canada. Thank you.