Addressing Canada’s food insecurity crisis requires immediate systemic change

COVID-19 left countless families jobless, one in seven are now experiencing food insecurity

Volunteers sort food donations at St. Ann’s Parish in Toronto, Ontario. (Flickr/Michael Swan)

It has been 25 years since Debbie Thomas stood in line at the food bank in Port Moody, but she still remembers the stares, the shame, and the crumbling loaves of bread.

Her daughter Sherri was just one year old when the weekly visits began, and Thomas had a second child on the way.

Thomas was on her own at 35 years old. After leaving an abusive relationship with the father of her children, she relied on welfare to get by. However, anyone relying on social assistance today will tell you that making ends meet on welfare alone is a near impossibility.

“I never thought that I would have to use a food bank,” says Thomas, who now lives in Surrey with her four children.

Since Thomas lined up for rations, food insecurity has only increased across the country.

Proof Research Lab reported in March that one in eight households across Canada, representing about 4.4 million Canadians, were food insecure in 2018. And according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey, there has been an increase of food insecure people since 2012.

Years later, as the COVID-19 pandemic leaves a record number of families jobless and financially devastated, the rate has increased to one in seven households that experience food insecurity.

These numbers, which don’t include the homeless or those living on First Nations reserves, are likely an underestimate. And only one-fifth of food insecure families use food banks to combat the issue.

Looking back, Thomas is thankful for the provisions, but the service was just a bandage solution for the problem.

“It was still a little tough. We always had something in our stomach, just not the best stuff. Not what you might want to have,” she says. “But I wasn’t going to complain about getting free food.”

In 1976, Canada ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees food access. Five years later, in 1981, the country’s first food bank appeared in Edmonton, Alberta.

“If you look at that period, from the 1980s onwards, we’ve sort of lived in this period of Liberalism, which is about privatization. It’s about smaller governments, it’s about people being required to be dependent upon standing on their own two feet,” says Dr. Graham Riches, professor emeritus at the UBC School of Social Work, and author of several books on food insecurity.

As food banks closed due to COVID-19 safety concerns, the B.C. NDP provided $3 million in pandemic aid to Food Banks BC, and the federal government doubled its funding to $200 million nationally.

However well-intentioned, experts like Riches say the government’s response fails to address the root of the crisis: treating food insecurity as an issue of access when it is really an income problem.

In B.C., where welfare is $710 a month per individual, Proof research indicates that 76 per cent of families relying on income assistance were food insecure, while nearly two-thirds of the province’s food insecure households held some form of employment.

As of 2018, more than 12 per cent of households in the province report having been afflicted by the crisis, and while it is most severe in northern B.C., wealthy cities like Vancouver, where average rent for a single-bedroom unit surpasses $1,000 per month, are no exception.

“We need to understand, fundamentally, that food is a basic human need. It’s like air and water, these are vital to our lives,” says Riches.

“These are fundamental to our existence, which is where our collective solidarity, critical solidarity, needs to be expressed.”

Riches advocates for a comprehensive reimagining of our social safety net, calling on the government to adopt a form of basic income that ensures those reliant on welfare, disability, and other forms of social assistance can meet their basic needs.

He says Canada has forfeit the task of reversing this trend to corporations, whose stagnant wages and incessant waste contribute to the problem, while comparatively miniscule donations polish their image in the eyes of consumers.

Basic income should accompany increased funding for existing social services and food programs geared towards long-term improvement, Riches says.

“If we went to war tomorrow, you’d find that the ministry of food would be created. You’d have food rationing because an army can’t fight on an empty stomach. It has to be well nourished.”

“So if that happens in wartime, why can’t we ensure it happens in peacetime?” Riches adds.

In lieu of a nationwide initiative, nonprofits tackle the crisis with efforts that seek to upend the stigmatizing and oft-substandard model dominating the charitable food sector.

In Vancouver, these programs unite under the banner of Vancouver Neighbourhood Food Networks, which encompasses various organizations focused on healthy, culturally appropriate, and destigmatized food access.

Ian Marcuse is the community food developer for one such group, the Grandview Woodland Food Connection. The organization serves the Commercial Drive area in East Vancouver, a low-income community with a large minority and Indigenous populations.

Black and Indigenous people in Canada are affected at disproportionate rates, with 28.4 per cent of Black households reporting food insecurity compared to 10 per cent of white households.

“Why are [food banks] permanent? Why have we allowed them to become a permanent part of our lives? Why aren’t governments doing more to end poverty and put more money in peoples’ pockets?’ Marcuse asks.

GWFC takes a decolonized approach to food security that involves “recognizing the knowledge and food traditions that have existed, and still exist today, and working to support those systems,” says Marcuse.

Prior to the pandemic, they offered various food skills programs and workshops and facilitated shared kitchens and community gardens in the neighbourhood.

Now, amid Canada’s second COVID-19 wave, “we’ve pretty much shifted all our energy and our resources to doing emergency food home delivery,” says Marcuse.

He notes that they’ve seen a sharp rise in demand since the pandemic reached North America, with people as far away as Coquitlam requesting assistance.

“It’s not what we usually do. We’re not a food bank, we don’t really ascribe to that model of food security,” says Marcuse, adding that GWFC is now waitlisted and “stretched to capacity.”

“We believe that people should have the proper resources, proper wages, income support, affordable housing support, childcare support, so that they can afford to purchase their own food.”

The same imperative guides the work of Strathcona Community Centre, which has run a breakfast program at Lord Strathcona Elementary for over 20 years.

Consistent demands for the service reflect the reality that families with children, particularly single mothers, are especially vulnerable to food insecurity, affecting one in six Canadian children.

“It’s really the relationships with people that make it a valuable service,” says Khalid Jamal, food security coordinator for Strathcona Community Centre.

The Centre also runs a snack program, youth food-skills workshops and a “backpack program” that sends students home with food each weekend.

“Food is a way that we express care and love for one another,” says Jamal. “A lot of this [stigma] can trace back to systemic things like capitalism. We were assigned value based on how much money we make.”

Jamal wants the government to establish a national school lunch program and says that universal basic income is another possible solution.

“As the price of everything goes up so quickly, folks who are accessing government support are just not able to keep up. Folks who are working at the minimum wage, are not able to keep up, folks who are under underemployed or unemployed. So I think it’s time to look at different models,” he says.

For the millions of Canadians with regular access to three daily meals, this issue may feel abstract. It doesn’t have the visual impact of homelessness or the death toll of the opioid crisis, yet its victims overlap with both.

And something as simple as a healthy meal can literally change someone’s life.

“We’re working with one group of refugee families, 48 families right now, through the COVID emergency food program … The food deliveries that they’ve been getting on a weekly, bi-weekly basis have really helped them,” says Marcuse.

“They’ve been very grateful for that. One woman, in particular, sent us a card. She has a child that has a disability, and it’s always a lot of work for her to go get food,” he says.

Thomas found a lifeline in the food bank when she needed it most, but it didn’t fix her situation.

“I was never one to reach out and ask people for help, even though I needed it. Just kind of suffered in silence, really,” she says.

In the end, it was not charity, but financial stability in the form of a loving marriage, that elevated Thomas from poverty.

Millions of other Canadians have not been so fortunate. And even for Thomas, it wasn’t an easy escape.