You may have heard a recent ad on the local radio: struggling Edmontonians need food assistance after layoffs and a fewer work opportunities. As a result, Edmonton’s Food Bank is trying to meet those needs and is looking for donations of all kinds.
Any time you have a shock to income, food is one of the first things to be given up. COVID-19 is such a shock, and it is an enormous one.
How a system reacts to shocks tells us a lot about how resilient it is. In 2008, when the recession hit, food bank use spiked by 28%, and it took years to for food bank use to decrease to pre-recession levels. To give an idea of the extent of the looming crisis, currently 4.4 million Canadians experience food insecurity. The World Food Programme predicts that unless action is taken, the number of people globally who experience short-term food insecurity will double. A poll conducted in April this year suggested that 65% of Canadians believe that hunger will be a serious problem as a result of COVID-19.
Rather than simply try to return to the way things were before, Food Secure Canada recognizes that these shocks can be an opportunity to create long-term, systemic changes. They explore how to build an equitable and sustainable food system for the country in a recent report.
Some of their recommendations are foundational for improving food security and are not new. They include:
- A universal basic income to ensure vulnerable populations have access to the food they want, not just the food they need.
- Indigenous food sovereignty, whereby First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples across Canada and in various settings are given the right to self-determination and governance within their food systems
- A national school food program, so that schools are equipped with the resources to provide adequate nutrition to all students.
This report also provides us with an opportunity to look deeper into agricultural practice and food systems in Canada. How these systems are set up influence our access to food, what kinds of foods we have, and the types of jobs available.
In order for agricultural systems to change, innovations must occur. Popular approaches include low-input and low-emissions methods, such as the “food webs” proposed by FSC. These food webs look at new ways where to shorten the distance between where our food is grown and where we eat it. There is a lot of room to grow (pun intended) in this area as well – Canada has historically ranked very poorly in terms of agricultural innovation, despite having various federal funding programs.
Shorter, innovative food supplies that de-emphasize commodity-based agricultural production has its own challenges. The authors also call for Canada to “respond on the global stage” by creating “coherent international trade policies, programs, and approaches”. These ideas are laudable but it is extremely difficult to incorporate into practice. Commodification is what makes trade work, because uniformity of product means that the trades are feasible to carry out. Simply put, you cannot trade your corn for wheat if all of your corn is different and changes day to day without huge administrative and testing costs. Organic and ecological approaches vary widely and so do their results. This has been a major barrier in scaling up organic food production.
Right now, the Federal government is diverting huge funds into emergency food responses. While it is important to get the most vulnerable Canadians through this crisis, the FSC report is an important reminder that we need to be thinking long-term – we need to be more resilient and in a better position to support our most vulnerable, both in the day to day, and when the next shock comes.