Planting A Seed: Starting A Conversation About Food Security And A Basic Income

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Today we are happy to share some insight from Jen H, a local Food System’s Roundtable member and Public Health dietician.  This post is the start of a three part series on the significance of a Guaranteed Basic Income and connects it to discussions of hunger in Canada, and locally, here in Waterloo Region.

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A while back I attended a webinar about food security – or the lack thereof – in Canada. It was hosted by a well-known researcher on the subject, Valerie Tarasuk. I serve on the Food System’s Roundtable Food Access working group and thought the information presented in the webinar made some interesting points about accessing food in Canada, which may help form conversations around how to address the issue of food insecurity in Waterloo Region.

Food security is a complicated concept that touches on, and is affected by every aspect of the food system, human health and beyond. Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Many factors can affect one’s food security negatively or positively.

Understanding The Scope Of The Problem: In Canada…

In 2012 more than 4 million Canadians were food insecure. This number may not represent the full scope of the problem as it was captured by the Canadian Community Health Survey, which does not include those living on reserves and in some other pockets of Canada – pockets which typically have higher rates of food insecurity such as remote communities in Northern Quebec. As well, other vulnerable populations like migrant workers would not be captured by this survey.

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Furthermore, food insecurity rates are higher in the North (over 40 percent of Nunavummiut are food insecure) and East (over 17 percent of Nova Scotians are food insecure) of Canada. Because Ontario, Alberta and British Colombia are so densely populated, they account for 84 percent of all food insecure Canadians. Out of all the Canadian provinces and territories, Alberta has the lowest rate of food insecurity at 11.5 percent. Food insecurity disproportionately affects children under the age of 18, and in 2012 one in six Canadian children was living in a food insecure household.

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In Waterloo Region…

A 2015 report released by Cancer Care Ontario puts the Region of Waterloo as 6th most food insecure out of all 36 Ontario health unit’s districts, with nearly 13 percent of all residents experiencing food insecurity – this translates into nearly 61,000 people living in our Region.

The cost of food in Waterloo Region has risen from 2009-2015, but follows a similar trend to the provincial Consumer Price Index (CPI). This means that although food is continually becoming more expensive, so is everything else. What this tells us is that it’s not a significant increase in food prices causing food insecurity; yet, food insecurity in the Region of Waterloo remains a serious problem. This is because, as Tarasuk demonstrated in her webinar, the root cause of food insecurity in Canada is low income.

Sidebar: Why Are People Food Insecure?

People’s access to food can be limited for a variety of reasons. The most prevalent reason that prevents Canadians from accessing food sufficient in quality and quantity is low income. That being said, low income doesn’t always guarantee poor food access, nor does high income guarantee adequate food access. How can this be?

Take the example of a young adult living with his parents while working a relatively low-paid job. He may not be experiencing inadequate food access because his parents are providing him with meals free of charge. On the other hand, each member of a high income household may not receive all the same privileges, or a high income household may not have reliable access to a grocery store due to geographic constraints. This might seem surprising, but income levels do not always reflect the amount of money available to spend on food since they don’t capture things like access to credit, assets, savings, or shelter costs. Food security is different than poverty; they are related, but not always interdependent. This is why, as Tarasuk reiterates, it is so important that we measure food insecurity rates on their own.

Similarly, although food insecurity implies that nutrition might be compromised, trying to measure food insecurity with traditional nutritional assessments is also ineffective. Traditional nutritional assessments such as dietary recalls are ineffective because they do not account for all components of food insecurity, like the worry people experience about being able to access enough food. In addition, nutritional assessments typically only capture a one or two day picture of a household or person’s ability to access food, which can vary significantly over time. For instance, if social assistance is received at the first of every month, a household’s or individual’s food security could look quite different at the first of the month versus the end of the month when money starts to run out.

How To Understand The Problem So That We Can Fix It

It’s difficult to effectively address a complex problem that you don’t understand. Poverty and food insecurity do not have the straightforward relationship that we might assume. Food insecurity is—and should be, if it’s going to be a useful concept—a more powerful marker of diet quality than poverty, education, or income. Tarasuk reminded us that food security must be measured and monitored on its own if we wish to properly understand and address it. Measuring food insecurity in its own right, alongside additional measures of diet quality, would allow us to identify populations whose health and nutrition are compromised due to low income.

Much significant data shows that food insecurity is linked to health status. This is especially true for the mental health component of one’s health status. In other words, our mental health suffers especially as we become more food insecure. The graphs below paint a troubling picture: those suffering from chronic conditions are significantly overrepresented by the severely food insecure; similarly, the more food insecure you are, the more likely it is that you will have one or more chronic conditions.

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Since reliance on social assistance in Ontario is almost a guarantee for food insecurity, we can assume that many of the severely food insecure do not have the appropriate supports to effectively manage their chronic condition(s), like adequate drug coverage, for example. In their 2015 report, Association between household food insecurity and annual health care costs, Tarasuk and others demonstrated that household food insecurity and Ontarian adults’ health status have a graded relationship; that is, poorer health and increased probability of diagnoses of chronic disease, poorer disease management, and increased health care costs intensify as household food insecurity becomes more severe.

How can we improve Canadians’ food security?

The good news is that some Canadian policy initiatives have made notable progress in mitigating food insecurity; in particular, Tarasuk highlighted social assistance offered to Canadian seniors. Seniors (defined as people over the age of 65) have the lowest rate of food insecurity amongst other selected groups who receive financial assistance from the Canadian government (see graph below). Tarasuk postulates that this is the case because these are the only Canadians with a guaranteed annual income, which is indexed to inflation. In combination with other benefits such as drug coverage and assistance offered from private industries (think of seniors’ discounts at restaurants, grocery stores, and so on) seniors are relatively well protected against food insecurity. As you can see from the following graph, the income support mechanisms that currently protect Canadian seniors from poverty may be attractive policy options to consider for other high risk groups, such as those on social assistance, who experience triple the rate of food insecurity that seniors do.

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Another success story comes from Newfoundland and Labrador (NFLD). In 2006, the NFLD provincial government implemented a new poverty reduction strategy, and from 2007 to 2011 a significant decline in food security rates took place. Not surprisingly, NFLD’s poverty reduction strategy was successful because it aimed to do what seniors’ income support mechanisms do: increase and guarantee disposable income for those most at risk for poverty.

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Because the best predictor of household food insecurity is household income, it can be a natural reflex for advocacy groups to focus their efforts on supporting legislation for public policies like a living wage. An interesting point made by Tarasuk was that during high levels of unemployment a large proportion of the working population is forced into precarious work environments, such as those that are temporary, part time, and without much employer support. So while advocating for a living wage may seem like an attractive way to fight poverty, it does little for those only able to work a few hours per week or not at all; in other words, the labour market must be conducive to enabling Canadians to find meaningful and dignified employment, which may then become a pathway out of poverty. As Tarasuk explained, a guaranteed annual income or universal basic income tied to inflation, such as that received by Canadian seniors, removes the vulnerability of low income while also protecting from other shocks and precarious employment. Based on the information presented in this webinar, guaranteed annual income appears to be an attractive policy option for increasing food security and reducing poverty.

Conclusion

The first step in alleviating food insecurity in Canada is to understand the problem – its scope, its effects, its severity, and what has worked in the past and in other jurisdictions. Tarasuk’s webinar demonstrated clearly that the root cause of food insecurity is inadequate income, and that the best way to address that root cause is through increased income, tied to inflation and guaranteed. The task, now, is to explore and support policy options that will make that happen.

For more information please visit PROOF: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity and stay posted for the next two posts which will take the idea of a Basic Income and consider its implications.

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