UN report bolsters Canada's right to food movement

"Canada has long been seen as a land of plenty. Yet today one in ten families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs. These rates of food insecurity are unacceptable, and it is time for Canada to adopt a national right to food strategy." - Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. 

Yesterday Olivier De Schutter concluded his first official visit to Canada as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, a whirlwind fact-finding mission and tour across the country conducted on the invitation of the Canadian Government.

In 11 days, Mr. De Schutter's tour included stops in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton to hear civil society deputations and conduct meetings with municipal, provincial and federal government authorities.

Conservative cabinet ministers refuse to meet

While Mr. De Schutter secured an audience with Health Canada, Justice Canada, the Manitoba Ministry of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, City of Toronto, and even Thomas Mulcair of the NDP and Bob Rae of the Liberal Party, Conservative cabinet ministers refused to meet the Special Rapporteur.  That is, until the final hour, when Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq did meet with De Schutter, only to make very disparaging comments. That was perhaps unsurprising, since under the Harper government Canada was one of six countries on the UN Human Rights Council that withheld its support for an emergency right to food meeting in 2008, amid the global food crisis.

Food is a fundamental human right, recognized under international law in the 1948Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

According to the Special Rapporteur, the right to food is, "The right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear."

Why are people food insecure in Canada?

At first glance it is hard to understand how 800,000 households are food insecure in a country as prosperous as Canada, ranked sixth in the Human Development Index. Scratching the surface, however, innumerable reasons emerge to explain the shocking levels of hunger and malnutrition in the country.

In civil society meetings in Toronto on May 9, an array of testimonials from policy experts and community members at the Stop Community Food Centre shed light on economic injustice and the inadequate levels of social assistance in Ontario. Social assistance is like a blanket that is too short, suggested one young mother, who grew up in Brazil under a military, authoritarian regime, though never knew poverty intimately until coming to Canada. "If you cover your head, your feet will stick out," she said, "On social assistance you must choose between paying for rent or food."

FoodShare Toronto's Executive Director Debbie Field pointedly asked, "Who in Canada is responsible for you being hungry? No one." Citing the need for a Minister of Food Security, or at the very least, a portfolio for Food Security within the Ministry of Health, Field draws from the Brazilian example of Fome Zero. She was met on equal footing by De Schutter in his deep knowledge and similar respect for the progressive programs and policies in place in Brazil to protect and uphold the universal right to food.

Food banks: Not a solution to systemic problems

Through an array of stories and statistics emerged a complex web of connections between housing, employment, transportation, poverty, nutrition, health and food, condemning food charity as an inadequate response to hunger and food insecurity.

Food banks, which arose as a stop-gap measure in the early 1980s in Canada, are not a solution to the systemic problems which prevent a person from accessing healthy affordable food. Though food banks in Canada attempt to dismantle the stigma associated with food charity through innovative programming and partnerships, and do so with grace, food is an entitlement and not a privilege, as Mr. De Schutter firmly reminded the assembly in his closing remarks.

After a morning spent with migrant agricultural workers and an afternoon in Toronto's Davenport West neighbourhood, Mr. De Schutter was hosted by FoodShare for supper and a conversation on student nutrition, which was moderated by Wayne Roberts, formerly of theToronto Food Policy Council. Two high school students gave touching presentations on the importance of snack programs in their schools to boost health and concentration levels, and to guarantee all students a healthy start to the day.

Diana Bronson, Food Secure Canada's new Executive Director, spoke from years of experience with Rights and Democracy about the importance of progressive realization of the right to food. After hearing the staggering figures of plummeting social assistance rates over the last 20 years, the Special Rapporteur commented that while overnight changes are impossible and certainly not expected, this is an example of regression and unacceptable from a legal framework.

The most striking part of the evening's events were images of a classroom in Fort Albany of grade two students gathered around an open caribou, learning culturally-specific student nutrition skills. This was part of a presentation by the community's food security coalition, Netaweketata, who in collaboration with the True North Community Co-op in Thunder Bay and FoodShare in Toronto - utilizing the Nutrition North subsidy - are bringing fresh, healthy, affordable food to their remote community. While this is a highly commendable initiative, it begs the question, where is the government in protecting the right to food of this community and so many others?

Recommendation: A national right to food strategy for Canada

Olivier De Schutter issued his end-of-mission statement yesterday, a report which lists recommendations for Canada and expresses concern "about the growing gap between Canada's international commitments and their implementation domestically."

The Special Rapporteur strongly recommends a national right to food strategy for Canada, which currently lacks a food policy or strategy at the national level, or even at the provincial and territorial levels. His statement indicates he is heartened by the civil society engagement in the right to food movement, citing such bodies as food policy councils and food security organizations, and he "welcomes and strongly encourages such participatory models of food system management."

Among his specific recommendations, the Special Rapporteur indicates "social assistance levels need to be increased immediately to correspond to the costs of basic necessities," that the minimum wage level should be a 'living wage,' and that food adequacy through programs targeting health promotion must be more urgently addressed, given that this is a society where malnutrition from too much or unhealthy foods is as much of a concern as malnutrition from too little food.

De Schutter voices concerns about the dismantled Canadian Wheat Board, structural barriers to institutional procurement of local food, and calls for a thriving small-scale farming sector. Finally, his report calls for a reform to the Nutrition North Canada program and "a structural approach to tackling the socio-economic and cultural barriers to opportunities for those living on reserves that result in their not enjoying fully their right to adequate food." He also regretted that neither the federal Government nor the provinces consider that they "have a responsibility to support off-reserve Aboriginal peoples in overcoming the structural discrimination they face."

The UN Special Rapporteur's end-of-mission statement emphasizes consultation and real partnership, the underlying principles of the People's Food Policy Project, developed in consultation with over three thousand Canadians at kitchen table talks across the country, and resulting in a series of ten policy papers and "Resetting the Table," a report calling for a national food policy.

Time for action on the right to food

There is an international groundswell of support for the right to food, as evidenced by Slow Food International's publication on The Central Role of Food, translated into 50 languages in preparation for their international congress in October 2012.

The demand to protect the right to food is cross-cutting: not only ecogastronomy enthusiasts, but peasants and small farmers are also speaking out.  Via Campesina made a statement to the UN General Assembly on the Global Food Crisis and the Right to Food in 2009.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food puts his report forward to the UN Human Rights Council in the spring of 2013, and one can only wonder if the Canadian government will step up to its legal responsibilities in the interim.

Certainly, the momentous visit catalyzed right to food activists and advocates across the country, while Olivier De Schutter acknowledged that a government and its officials may well ignore a report on their desks.

It is up to the rest of us to shame them into action.

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