Nick Saul, CM, is the CEO of Community Food Centres Canada and the chancellor of Victoria University in the University of Toronto.
We’ve all faced long, frustrating lineups during the pandemic. But the lineups for emergency food are altogether different. They wind down streets and around corners, people’s vulnerability on full display. A mass of bundle buggies and despair.
Across the country, food banks, community centres and shelters have tried to accommodate the growing need during the pandemic. Since COVID-19, Canada has seen a 39 per cent increase in food insecurity. That’s one in seven people in Canada. If you’re Black, Indigenous or racialized, the numbers are exponentially worse.
The groundswell of community support, including community fridges and pop-up sandwich-making groups, has been heartwarming. But we need to be clear: Charitable food handouts can’t adequately deal with the current crisis, let alone the deep and long-standing race, class and gender divisions that ultimately lie at the heart of poverty and food insecurity.
As we hurtle toward the federal election, addressing this inequity is paramount. Voting for real, material improvements in the lives of people forced to cope with the grinding, structural poverty that’s been exacerbated by COVID-19 is essential.
There is no good reason working people should come home to empty fridges – or have to visit community fridges – each night. Indigenous elders and youth should not have to miss meals. Fruits and vegetables should not be prohibitively expensive.
The federal election campaign presents an opportunity to speak up and mobilize. It’s a chance to shift the care and concern for others displayed by individuals during the pandemic into the public sphere. Those vying for our votes need to know that we expect better.
Some of our responses to COVID-19 give us a glimpse of how we might create this better future. Take, for example, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). At $2,000 a month, it brought low-income people closer to rising above the poverty line than they have ever been with our woefully inadequate social assistance programs or working multiple, stitched-together, low-paying jobs. CERB allowed many people to catch their breath because they no longer had to choose between food and rent or food and medicine.
Another pandemic income intervention was the wage increase for some essential workers. It didn’t equate to a living wage by a long shot, nor did it last, but it did aim to more fairly compensate people working high-risk jobs in factories and on checkout lines.
As voting day approaches, we need to keep in mind how we’ve navigated the pandemic punch to our economy and its human fallout. Policies such as CERB were short-term, but they were possible. They proved that we could move quickly to make life better and fairer for people. Why should we settle for anything less as we approach our post-pandemic future?
There’s no mystery to creating equity, inclusion and food security in our country. Substantive, long-term solutions come in the form of progressive income policies and social programs. Increases to the Canada child benefit have reduced severe food insecurity in families with children by a whopping 30 per cent. The Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for seniors reduces the risk of food insecurity in this population by a full 50 per cent. It’s not rocket science – income matters.
Along with these kinds of tax benefits and income supports, pharmacare and affordable housing are just a few of the other ways a federal government can show up to help create an income floor that guarantees everyone has enough healthy food to not just survive but thrive. When we commit to this, we’ll also help inoculate ourselves against the crises that are sure to come.
So, as you stand in that voting line on Sept. 20, don’t forget that political will is forged by individuals collectively taking a stand for each other and greater equity. It’s the only way we’ll truly kick the degrading emergency food line into the dustbin of history.
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