|Food Insecurity in Canada: Food Banks, Injustice, and Social Inequality
|| PRINTABLE VERSION
When one thinks of hunger and malnutrition, one often thinks of the third-world. However, food insecurity is a problem that is also plaguing industrialized nations. A visit to any local supermarket in Canada, with its thousands of readily, always available food items, will convince someone that food insecurity is not a problem of availability. Moreover, to someone unable to feed their family or even themselves, it is almost incomprehensible that an entire aisle in any of these supermarkets dedicates its space to food meant to nourish our four-legged friends. It may seem unimaginable that a country with a gross national product of 756 million dollars (2004), a population that spends millions of dollars annually on junk food, and maintains acres upon acres of agricultural land has malnourished, food insecure citizens. Yet, in a country that treats its pets better than some of its own citizens, recent studies show that at least ten percent of Canada’s population is food insecure. This means that roughly three million people do not have regular, continual access to sufficient quantities of nutritious food.
It is a common myth in the Western world that a lack of food is simply caused by a lack of food. However, availability is not the problem; distribution and poverty are. In many ways, this is true of the third-world, as well. Just as wealthy nations do not distribute their wealth evenly among the many nations of the world, the distribution of wealth within a nation is also not equally shared. Therefore, certain disadvantaged population groups, particularly aboriginal peoples, the disabled, and children, are more likely to go hungry or eat compromised diets. In a society where food is increasingly commoditized and the distance between land and the table is greater, many people simply cannot afford to access the Canadian food market.
Various programs have been created to fill this gap. One such example is food banks. Currently there are over 600 food banks in Canada. They normally work by providing a household with a basket of food on a monthly, as-needed basis. Often there is no more than a few days worth of food in the basket and the nutritional content of the food is usually lacking because perishable food items, like fruits, vegetables, fresh meats and dairy, cannot be included. The food is acquired from individual or corporate donations. While food banks do provide a very necessary service, they readily admit that they are not a long-term solution. In fact, since the conception of food banks in the 1980s, the problem of food insecurity has more than doubled and growing numbers of people are attempting to access their limited services.
The problem with food banks is that they are not proactive. Like many charities, they do not solve the problem of poverty. Instead, they exacerbate it by making people dependent. They are a source of aid to those suffering from food insecurity only after they have fallen through the cracks of society’s social safety net by little to no fault of their own. Also, since being food secure requires that a person can obtain food in a manner that maintains human dignity, the use of a food bank, despite the provision of food, cannot ever fully absolve food insecurity seeing as the use of a food bank can be very stigmatizing. Justice is preferable to charity any day.
Solutions are most often found at the policy level. Governments have the greatest power to enact real change and eliminate this problem. Food activists argue that an increase in the building and maintenance of safe, affordable housing will help to eliminate hunger and poverty and Canada by allowing low-income residents to dedicate more of their incomes towards food and less towards skyrocketing rent and mortgage payments.
Likewise, dismally insufficient minimum wage rates, need to be augmented substantially to decrease the gap between rich and poor and allow those in poverty to buy the basics for survival, such as food. In addition, the government is making it increasingly difficult for young people to acquire education and job skills training. Without proper education, people are delegated to low-paying, minimum wage jobs that do not provide for one’s family. Lastly, health care needs to have a greater focus on health prevention since research demonstrates that proper nutrition has the ability to ward of various illnesses and diseases and contributes to healthy mental and physical development.
Although primarily Canadian examples have been used throughout this paper, it should be noted that this situation is not only limited to Canada. Other industrialized nations, such as the United States, England, and Australia, have similar problems. Since food is a necessity for health and vitality, and therefore it is the most basic of human rights, millions of people in the developed world are being subjected to poor health and a loss of dignity due to the ambivalence of their governments. Food banks and voluntary groups cannot solve this problem alone. Something must be done to eliminate food insecurity and poverty in Canada, as well as the rest of the world, and increase access to one of the very staples of our existence: food.
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