When the Prime Minister announced $100 million to support food banks and other community food programs during COVID-19, he was throwing aside everything we know about food insecurity in Canada. We know it is a large and very serious public health problem rooted in inadequate, insecure incomes. It cannot be solved by charitable food assistance. But in the announcement on April 3, which came after a series of innovative, generous and timely income support announcements for workers and businesses, Justin Trudeau called upon food charity volunteers and encouraged an expansion of programs that provide food rather than income for Canadians facing arguably the most extreme financial hardship during the pandemic.
Canada’s COVID-19 response has emphasized the importance of science in directing decision making. Yet, food charity, an old idea that has never been able to adequately respond to food insecurity in Canada, has been brought to the fore as a sound solution. The evidence-based alternative to food charity is basic income, and this is the time for its implementation.
Food insecurity was bad before COVID-19. It is unquestionably worse now, as it will be in the post-COVID-19 recessionary future. Through national monitoring we know that in 2017-18, more than 4.4 million people were living in food-insecure households – the highest estimate to date. Food insecurity is a measure of people’s abilities to afford the food they need. It indicates a serious level of material deprivation. Food-insecure households struggle to cover the costs of all kinds of basic needs including rent, utilities, and prescription medications, day in and day out. Food insecurity is already a serious public health problem. Food-insecure Canadians are much more likely than others to have serious physical and mental health problems, and they are less able to manage these conditions. In the course of a year, severely food-insecure adults burn up more than double the health care dollars of the rest of us. They also die earlier – we estimated that severe food insecurity shaves 9 years off the life of adults in this country.
Without effective responses to the additional hardships brought on by COVID-19, the number of people affected by food insecurity and the levels of deprivation they face are going to get a whole lot worse. And the health implications of being food-insecure will become even more dire. So, mounting an effective response now is critical.
Over the last two decades, we and others have done a lot of research to figure out who is most at risk of food insecurity in Canada and why. This problem has nothing to do with food skills or shopping behaviours. Food insecurity is the product of inadequate, insecure incomes and a lack of assets. Prior to the pandemic, almost two-thirds of food-insecure households in Canada were reliant on income from employment. Many were in low-wage, short-term, part-time, precarious work. Any loss of income or rise in expenses for these workers and their families will make their situations worse. At the same time, job losses will plunge more people into food insecurity, as those with limited resources are unable to buffer this income shock.
We have also studied policy interventions that reduce food insecurity through deliberate poverty-reduction programming and the examination of food insecurity before and after policy changes. What moves the needle on food insecurity in Canada is interventions that a) reach low-income households whatever their income source, and b) improve their financial resources in an ongoing way. Examples include our public old-age pensions, the Canada Child Benefit, and Newfoundland and Labrador’s poverty reduction strategy.
Before COVID-19, the number of food-insecure people in Canada (4.4 million) was four times the number being helped by food banks. Seeking food charity is a strategy of last resort, most commonly used by people struggling to cope with severe levels of deprivation, but even among this group, most do not use food banks. Nor has food bank use risen as a strategy of choice over time.
Concerns about the institutionalization of food banks and their lack of effectiveness as a solution to food insecurity have been written about for decades. While the widespread public perception is that they must do some good, we have no evidence to suggest that the people who use food banks are better off than those who don’t. There are many reasons for this, only one of which is the limited assistance food banks can provide. Importantly, the needs of people who can’t afford enough to eat go way beyond food. Help from food banks has never been enough to fully meet the needs of those who use them, and this imbalance can only be intensifying now.
The newly announced Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) will offer income support for up to 16 weeks to some of those who lose pay because of the pandemic. But its coverage and impact for households at risk of food insecurity are questionable. Calculations of basic living costs (in Alberta or Nova Scotia, for example) suggest that $2,000 may be insufficient to cover food, shelter, prescription medications, and other necessities for a month. This will matter less to recipients in households with other resources (the income of a spouse or parent, for example). But as a sole source of sustenance, the CERB is dangerously small.
People who are forced to turn to social assistance because they fail to qualify for CERB or any other income support program will find themselves in even more perilous situations. Pre-COVID-19, almost two-thirds of households reliant on social assistance were food insecure. The gross inadequacies of social assistance programs in Canada will spiral upwards now as basic living costs rise – even as more people are forced to apply for this assistance.
We are focusing on income support programs of last resort – CERB and social assistance – because that is what matters now for people who are unable to make ends meet through employment, savings, or other resources. There have been several initiatives announced under the federal government’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan to support individuals who have been temporarily displaced from the workforce and to assist businesses and non-profits directly and indirectly, through tax postponement and wage subsidies. These levers are designed to sustain and eventually stimulate the economy in the relaunch phase post-pandemic. They must not be confused with the measure required to enable people to meet basic needs, namely a stable, adequate income.
As conditions worsen for the most vulnerable people in this country, we badly need effective responses. This means enabling those on the margins to meet their basic needs by ensuring that they have adequate, secure incomes – not trying to patch together these needs through haphazard charitable gestures and wage subsidies and emergency benefits implemented to address other objectives. Such efforts will not be enough to manage the escalating vulnerability of the millions of Canadians facing food insecurity. Now is surely the time to implement a basic income that is available to all. This means setting an income floor that is sufficient to meet basic needs and below which no one is allowed to fall. It’s the only way to ensure that no one is left behind.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.