Kirstin Beardsley is CEO of Food Banks Canada. Michael McCain is executive chair of the board and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods and the honorary chair of the Maple Leaf Centre for Food Security. Nick Saul is the CEO of Community Food Centres Canada.
During the pandemic, Canadians were there for each other. Now, with record inflation and economic uncertainty rocking the globe, you might think people would turn inward to focus on themselves and their own needs.
Remarkably, that hasn’t happened. Canadians continue to stand up for one another.
In a recent national poll on social and economic issues facing the country we found that more than two-thirds of people believe now is the time to address serious social issues. More than 80 per cent believe the federal government should do more to help people living with poverty and hunger. Seventy-five per cent feel that establishing a basic minimum income floor, which would provide a social safety net for all Canadians, would be very or somewhat desirable. And only 43 per cent believe Canada is making steady progress toward being a fairer country.
As a nation we acted swiftly and effectively to mitigate the worst socio-economic impacts of COVID, but it’s clear our work is far from done. Canada is advancing a poverty reduction strategy and we’re making headway. Yet rates of food insecurity continue to climb – the latest reports show a staggering 16 per cent or almost six million people in Canada face hunger. Indigenous and Black people experience rates 3.5 times the national average owing to systemic racism and colonialism. An estimated 50 per cent of people who are food insecure are living with a disability.
Increases in the number of people relying on food banks can be seen as a canary in the coal mine when it comes to forecasting food insecurity rates. New data showed that food bank visits were up 35 per cent in March, 2022, from 2019 prepandemic levels, with more than 1.5 million people resorting to emergency food relief in a single month. One third of those accessing food banks were children. And, for the first time, there was a significant rise in people turning to emergency help despite being employed.
By any definition these numbers represent a national crisis that demands an urgent and significant response. This also demonstrates that the situation is only getting worse.
Governments often try to walk a fine line between fiscal conservancy and social spending. Yet people who cannot afford to feed themselves are both a humanitarian issue AND an economic cost to our country. How can you pursue an education, hold down a job, provide opportunities for your children, if you cannot afford to eat? The answer is you cannot.
This can be solved. Other affluent countries – Sweden, Germany, Japan – have rates of food insecurity up to half of what we experience in Canada. We know that targeted social programs, like the Canada Child Benefit and Old Age Security, make a measurable impact on poverty and food insecurity. We must prioritize more of these kinds of interventions. For example, we urge the rapid implementation of a dignified Canada Disability Benefit, and also help for people 18 to 64, a group that experiences among the highest food insecurity rates in the country. A commitment to such supports will both lift people up and circulate money back into our economy. We will all benefit.
To guide action, we also call upon Canada to set a target to reduce food insecurity by 50 per cent by 2030. Establishing a target drives focus, accountability, and action. It will require an integrated approach across governments, the private sector and civil society. Targets have already been set for the reduction of poverty and greenhouse gas emissions; food insecurity is as serious an issue and needs its own target and focused government action.
We’re not starting from zero – but we must commit, without equivocation, to building a stronger, more equitable social safety net, one that no Canadian can fall through. One that ensures everyone can access the very basics of life.
The devastating impacts of hunger and poverty fuel our outrage and the advocacy efforts of our organizations. We need other Canadians to join us, putting their words and values into action. And more than anything, we need the political will of our elected officials to set a target that will help drive policies and action toward ending food insecurity in Canada. We can and must do better.