Food and children: A national issue?

When you think about the issue of food and children, it is almost automatic to see it as a local issue. Food banks, school breakfast programs, community programs to help parents with nutrition issues, whether meal planning or dealing with the imbalances of the food market – all local programs and so local issues.  It seems natural to think first of your neighbours’ difficulties.  How can we massage the food/child issue to see it as a national issue?

One way is to think of malnutrition in terms of population health. We now know (thanks largely to Richard Wilkinson) that there is a close correlation between income inequality and serious health problems.  One of the obvious ways to link the two is to note that poor children are quite likely to be malnourished.  This means that they become long-term burdens on the health-care system - a national issue despite Mr. Harper’s views.

But there are more positive ways of framing the food/child issue than taking care of sickly people with poor eating habits.  A national economy and its ability to meet the needs of all its citizens depends in its turn on the self-reliance and innovative abilities of those same citizens.  We are all in this together.

Thinking about the health of the national economy means thinking (though we might not like it) in economic terms.  It used to be that economists dealt with the welfare of the people by using the notion of “utility”.  “Utility” as a central concept implied imagining all of us as consumers taking away from the market a bundle of satisfactions and then asking how to make that bundle as large and equitable as possible.

However, since the 1980s, the writings of Amartya Sen have taken economists’ attention away from “utility” and focused on “capacity.”  (By the way, Sen grew up in East Bengal, remembered the terrible famine in 1943 when he was a child, and won the Nobel prize by showing that the famine was caused not by a lack of food but a lack of access by people to the food – so a matter of government policy.  So he knows about food issues.)

What Sen means by capability is people’s  “ability to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value.”  It implies a very positive understanding of the freedom of people to achieve a full life.

The link between good nutrition and a child’s growth into a person whose capacity has been fully developed is fairly easy to establish.  While not a sufficient condition, it is certainly a necessary condition.

Stressing “capacity building,” however, brings out the difficulty of working out a satisfactory communications strategy.  “Capacity building” is now a generally used word for development programs in underdeveloped countries and it is also common when talking of community development within Canada.  But Canadians, it seems, tend to take for granted that their national economy, being among the richest in the world, need not undertake national capacity building.  This is another way of saying that most Canadians, when thinking of their national economy, find it difficult to take into account the woeful lack of capacity building among poor people and especially among Indigenous communities.

This simply means you have chosen an apt issue to focus on.  After all, the future of Canada will soon be in the children’s hands.  If they flourish, Canada will flourish.

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