Our everyday lives require access to basic needs like food, shelter, water – things that allow us to survive. Life as we know it would not be possible without these things. A question that I continue to ask myself is why don’t people have access to things essential to life?
It is extremely ambitious to want to take on that question, so for now focusing on one of those basic needs – food. Is important to understand the current reality of how accessible it is, starting modestly with people in Canada. Food is such a broad topic that is connected to poverty, health, the environment, non-human animals and social justice.
Food accessibility has been a growing problem around the world and it has both complex political and historical roots.
Subsistence vs Money- Economy
Perhaps it would be best to start with the idea of land and how it is used. The way humans have used land before colonial and industrial times were in line with subsistence agriculture – growing enough food to feed themselves and their families.
Communities in Europe in the Middle Ages were subsisting on common land – also called “The Commons”.
When land began to become enclosed — privatized — people had limited options for surviving, meaning their landlessness led to their dispossession, forcing people into wage labour.
Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch writes that the land enclosures through the 18th century destroyed more than two thousand rural communities.
“Little was done to stop the trend,” despite anti-enclosure resistance throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
The main argument for the enclosures was to make land more productive in order to increase the food supply. This did not happen, because the food was merely put on the market and exported.
The shift from subsistence to a money-economy is very important to understand how capitalist expansion was not a natural development, but a violent and destructive program to clear a path towards enclosing anything once “common”.
This domination over land and people still continues, but has been exported across the world, as we still ponder the question – “why don’t people have enough to survive?”
In Canada the history of land dispossession, especially for Indigenous people, should not be forgotten when discussing issues of food, water and shelter.
Food Issues in Canada
An international team of researchers committed to the reduction of household food insecurity, called PROOF, published a report identifying policy options to reduce food insecurity in Canada.
They found that nearly one in eight households, and 3.9 million individuals in Canada, — including 1.1 million children — experience food insecurity.
To consider the growing trend, the 1998/1999 National Population Health Survey revealed that 2.4 million Canadians (8.4 per cent) had to compromise their diets because lack of money.
The report specifies what it means to be food insecure, connecting households had to deal with not having adequate food due to their income.
Another definition of food security comes from The World Food Summit from 1996 and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, saying that food security exists when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life
“Hunger is not new, but hunger is getting worse,” said Valerie Tarasuk, principle investigator of PROOF to U of T News. “More and more people are falling through the social safety net.”
How much people are spending on other basic needs also is important to note to get the whole picture on who is affected by food insecurity.
On average about 14 per cent of household budget in Canada is spent on food.
“But this average may not reflect the situation of families with lower income, those living in smaller towns, and in the North,” Mustafa Koc, Professor in Sociology and the Centre for Studies in Food Security, said in an interview with the CBC news.
Canadians with the lowest incomes spend proportionately more on food. According to Statistics Canada, households within the bottom fifth of household spending devoted 16.3 per cent of their budget on food in 2009.
The Conference Board of Canada’s 2013 report called Enough for All found that members of at-risk population groups, including Aboriginal peoples, lone-parent families, women and children, immigrants and the elderly are more likely to be affected.
Key risk factors of food insecurity are income, the costs of food and non-food essentials, geographic isolation, lack of transportation and food literacy.
Another major expense is housing. The housing association said 20 per cent of Ontario households pay more than 30 per cent of their income on rent or live in homes that are too small or in disrepair.
Susan Venditti, Executive Director for Start Me Up Niagara says that the situation in Niagara can be even worse where some households are paying up to 70 to 75 per cent of their income on housing.
Front-line work meeting the basic needs of people is also seen in public housing.
In Toronto, the shelter occupancy for August 2013 has revealed that they are at their bursting point. Men’s shelters were at 94 per cent, women’s shelters at 97 per cent, youth shelters at 95 per cent and co-ed shelters were at 100 per cent capacity.
In the US, the same trends persist an are exasperated by regressive legislation that has been adopted in many states like North and South Carolina, which criminalizes the homeless.
“The Emergency Homeless Response” in South Carolina was approved by City Councillors to remove homeless people from the downtown business district and forced into a crowded shelter.
The ongoing history of many US states arresting people for sharing food with the homeless is also interesting to consider.
In an interview for the zine We Need to Eat, Food Not Bombs Phoenix relayed what local police think of feeding the hungry, saying “We appreciate what you kids do, but we really don’t like these people to eat, because after they eat they get all riled up. So it’s better for them to stay hungry and complacent.”
Colorado has been one state to try a different method than South Carolina. Bent County, one of the poorest areas in Colorado, with a poverty rate over more than 20 per cent, turned an unused jail into a shelter.
Think Progress reported that instead of taxpayers shelling out approximately. $43,240 per homeless individual every year for emergency health care to legal issues who live on the streets, it would cost $16,813 per person living at the new shelter.
To try to put the pieces to the puzzle together, we know that food insecurity is growing as food prices are going up — food prices rose 2.4 per cent in 2012, 3.8 per cent in 2011 and 1.4 per cent in 2010 — which can also be correlated to the price of housing going up and other household expenses. Are peoples’ incomes rising to meet this inflation?
No, they aren’t. After unloading a bunch of statistics on you about what the reality is in terms of numbers, it is time to speak up about the political implications of food accessibility in Canada.
Austerity — the deliberate deflation of domestic wages and prices through cuts to public spending — is once again limiting the ability for people to escape poverty. As there are regressive cutbacks to federal and provincial benefits such as social assistance, community start up benefit, disability, Ontario Works and the special diet allowance; all these combined create enormous pressures for people to meet basic needs individually and on a family basis.
Making the connection, the CFIC report says that those who have the most food insecurity have social assistance as their main source of income.
Also important to note is the somewhat recent undermining of Reinhart and Rogoff’s claim that rising levels of government debt are associated with weak or negative economic growth. The research that justifies the intellectual underpinnings of the austerity and laissez-faire policies is not replicable on a quantitative level.
Poverty alone costs Niagara $1.38 billion a year in lost productivity, health-care expenses and social-support programs. Welfare rates in Ontario at the same time are being lowered, to the point where simply maintaining a household is a struggle. This includes keeping oneself or a family well fed.
It is hard to even imagine gaining adequate funding for public serves, let alone winning the constant reactionary fight against austerity. Research blunders aside, common sense tells us that you can only tighten a belt so much until it starts to hurt, or eventually kills you.
“In the intentional economic and austerity programs of our governments, we need to unite as a coalition and really start thinking of solutions to not only push back, but replace the broken systems with ones we create ourselves,” said Keith McHenry, co-founder of Food Not Bombs, a global movement that redistributes food as a political statement against government spending.
Just to give you some figures to think critically about what the government spends money on, in 2008 the Conservative government budgeted that over 20 years military spending would be estimated at $490 billion dollars. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that “The strengthened military will translate into enhanced security for Canadians at home”. I guess we can rest easy knowing we are well taken care of.
Since 2010, the army’s budget has been claimed to be cut by 22 per cent, still nominal compared to what is budgeted for public services.
Historically, Canada has built a fairly useful welfare state, but it began to be dismantled by neo-liberal policies which started to shift the state’s responsibility into privatized, charitable or faith-based responses to the demand for things like food.
This is where the bureaucracy began to gain legitimacy and perhaps obsoleteness in the lives of Canadians who got lost in the shuffle.
At the federal level, issues in food production and processing are under the jurisdiction of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Industry Canada. For issues in nutrition, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are utilized.
“Yet hunger, poverty, local development, and equity concerns are handled by Human Resources and Social Development, Indian and Northern Affairs, Status of Women Canada, plus a variety of regional agencies. Since many of these portfolios are also the domain of provincial or municipal governments, the political system makes action on complex issues such as food security unmanageable,” wrote Mustafa Koc in the article, Getting Civil about Food: The Interactions Between Civil Society and the State to Advance Sustainable Food Systems in Canada.
Graham Riches in Food Banks and Food Security: Welfare Reform, Human Rights and Social Policy. Lessons from Canada writes, “From a human rights perspective there is in Canada a certain irony to the question of what to do about food poverty and food security.”
Some government solutions to the increase in hunger are funding food banks. Food banks have become institutionalized where they are now seen as necessary and acceptable social agencies that the Canadian welfare system has given birth to. If you look at the research from the NPH survey (although it is a little outdated), 22 per cent of the respondents in food insecure households actually utilized food banks, soup kitchens or other charitable organizations.
Among those who use food banks in 2012, the CFIC report gathered that 52 per cent reported that social assistance was their primary source of income, 48 per cent were female, 38 per cent were children and youth under age 18, 11 per cent were immigrants or refugees, 11 per cent self-identified as Aboriginal, four per cent were seniors and three per cent were post-secondary students.
“In light of the accumulated evidence that food banks have become the institutionalized and poor cousin of an increasingly enfeebled welfare system which itself is unable to address people’s basic food needs,” wrote Riches.
Charity alone cannot address the growing food needs, especially when these NGOs are expected to replace the eroding functions of the welfare state. Much of the criticisms that NGOs have received are that they can at times be self-serving interest groups, and often become de-politicized for fear of losing funding. Another criticism is that these organizations do not address the structural cause of food poverty which is not addressed by surplus food redistribution.
Organizations that are helping to build a stronger food security movement are out there though.
Riches, for example, references The Daily Bread in Toronto, the largest food bank in Ontario. They have been campaigning for better social assistance benefits, affordable rents, public housing and child-care programs, which targets the economic conditions people are facing, rather than a charity model that creates a community of dependency.
The Stop – Community Food Centre also has an affective model for addressing food needs in the Toronto area.
Another organization that has been affective at rejecting government bureaucracy has been Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). For nearly 20 years, OCAP has been mobilizing people through direct action to take back their communities and stand up against policies and institutions that contribute to poverty.
If you are interested in learning about these issues and getting involved, have a look at the different community groups, organizations and individuals running programs to help address the immediate needs of people, both on a short-term front-line basis and for the long term – just be critical of their interests. You may have a preverence in the kind of organizing that suits you. It is clear that there is important work being done on the issues related to basic well-being, but do we really need more reports to remind us that there is a widening gap between the rich and poor? We need all the help we can get building stronger communities.
Organizations or groups in the Niagara Region you can learn more about or get involved are interested in the connections between health, food, housing and poverty:
Niagara Poverty Reduction Network
Start Me Up Niagara
Garden City Food Co-op
OPIRG Fed Up
Student Justice Centre
Food Not Bombs Niagara