The Rising Cost of Food: a National Food Policy Should Focus on Health and Sustainability
The fall of the Canadian dollar below the 70-cents-US mark is expected to leave Canadians with higher grocery bills. This situation is particularly critical considering that the vast majority of fruits and vegetables eaten by Canadians are imported and that the rate of inflation on food products hit 4.1% today. This puts Canadians in an unparalleled position among industrialised countries.
The goal of zero hunger in Canada
Increased food prices will impact all Canadians, but it is the most vulnerable who will be hit hardest. Food Secure Canada maintains that it is unthinkable that anyone should suffer from food insecurity in a country as rich as Canada.
The International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, ratified by Canada, gives all Canadians the right to food. Nonetheless, 4 millions Canadians, including 1.15 million children, have trouble putting food on the table.
Diana Bronson, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada, highlighted in media reports that rising food prices will be particularly burdensome for the lower and middle classes, many of whom “can't find a job that will pay them enough to ensure that they can afford a healthy diet for their families. It's students. It's senior citizens. It's the working poor. It's new immigrants.”
Indigenous peoples and visible minorities are disproportionately impacted by rising food costs. In Canada’s north, communities face a food security crisis that affects health and wellbeing.
The overwhelming cause of food insecurity is poverty. Strong political will is necessary to eradicate poverty and provide all Canadians with the ability to feed themselves adequate diets.
Sixty-eight percent of households whose main source of income comes from social assistance live in food insecurity. However, the majority of food insecure households (61.1 percent) rely on wages or salaries from employment.
During the Eat Think Vote election campaign, Food Secure Canada, in partnership with Community Food Centres Canada, recommended that the Government of Canada undertake a feasibility study on the implementation of a basic income in order to ensure all Canadians access to sufficient, safe, healthy, culturally appropriate food. Such a measure would guarantee all Canadians the ability to put food on the table by providing an income floor beneath which none could fall.
The price of a healthy diet climbs with the loonie
The price of fruits and vegetables will be especially impacted by the low dollar. Worryingly, these foods are essential for combating diabetes and hypertension, diseases that affect a growing number of Canadians.
Six in ten adults and one-third of children in Canada are overweight or obese, largely due to unhealthy diets. Instilling healthy food behaviours is necessary to reduce hypertension, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, certain cancers, and other food-related health problems.
Canadians find themselves in a paradoxical situation in which healthy foods that ought to be accessible to all, such as fruits and vegetables, are out of economic reach for many, while those that are damaging to their health are cheap. Inaction in the face of this issue will only exacerbate the current health crisis and lead to higher healthcare costs.
A national food policy as a shield against food insecurity
To give all Canadians access to healthy, affordable and sustainable food, the federal government must develop a comprehensive national food policy.
The election of the new Liberal government has opened up new possibilities around food policy. Prime Minister Trudeau has tasked Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Lawrence MacAulay with developing “a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.”
“It’s not something that the minister of agriculture can fix by itself,” says Bronson. “We need all the different departments and all the different stakeholders: industry and NGO’s. And people who are living in food insecurity need to be at the table where the decisions are made.”
The new government must recognize that food policy is intimately related to the fight against climate change, better health, sustainable fisheries, fair trade, the rights of Indigenous and northern people and poverty elimination, among many other important issues.
— Food Secure Canada (@FoodSecureCAN) 14 Janvier 2016
Food Secure Canada has been working for this commitment since the publication of Resetting the Table in 2011. Five years later, there are good reasons to be optimistic about the future of our food system and a Canadian food policy. However, there remains much to do to ensure that this new food policy guides us toward food sovereignty, zero hunger and a healthy and sustainable food system.
There’s also a renewed sense of collaboration, and the new federal government seems more willing than the previous one to work with a variety of food system stakeholders.
We need to ensure that our key values - zero hunger, healthy and safe food, and sustainable food systems - are the bedrock of the new policy. We need to ensure that food sovereignty, healthy kids, support for sustainable farms and ending the epidemic of hunger in Northern and remote communities are national priorities.