In Pearsuit of Happiness: What Canada Is Doing to Tackle Food Insecurity

Priscilla Mak

Few policy areas have as widespread an effect on diverse stakeholders as food policy. All governments face challenges in food supply and distribution due to the complex global food system – farmers, processors, distributors, and consumers are all affected by food policies and regulations. In Canada, there has been no comprehensive policy response to food insecurity at the national level, leaving issues of physical and economic access to sufficient and nutritious food unaddressed.

harvest-vegetables-labelled-for-reuse-with-modificationThe Liberal government has committed to addressing food security by developing and funding a national strategy. Creating a national food policy would tie in with existing and updated provincial poverty reduction strategies, as well as calls for a universal school food program and investing in farm succession to reduce barriers for young Canadian farmers. Discussions about framing and weaving a national strategy into the work of existing provincial and territorial poverty reduction strategies have already started to take place.

Two recent conferences on food security highlighted some major challenges to creating a comprehensive and cohesive national strategy to tackle food insecurity. The 9th National Assembly of Food Secure Canada was held from October 13-16 at Ryerson University, and Advancing Food Insecurity Research in Canada was held from November 17-18 at the University of Toronto by PROOF, a CIHR-supported (Canadian Institutes of Health Research) research program housed at the Department of Nutritional Sciences.

Key takeaways from discussions held at both events conclude that policymakers crafting a national food policy face three key implementation issues:

  1. Availability of affordable food, especially for Indigenous communities in Northern Canada;
  2. Challenges in applying research to program development that responds to public health needs, in order to improve health and nutritional outcomes (e.g., national school food program);
  3. Difficulties in translating research into policy to mobilize policymakers to move beyond food charity models (e.g. food banks).

Overall, one of the biggest challenges to developing a strong national food policy is to continue to understand food insecurity as a significant issue impacting the lives of many Canadians. Even with multiple sources of empirical research on the positive impact of food security on early childhood development, Indigenous community welfare in the North, and the livelihood of farmers, food has not been clearly addressed to date as part of policy intervention.

grocery-shelfThe plenary sessions at these events explored issues surrounding “success” and “failure” of food policy interventions, such as community kitchens, that are designed to improve the welfare of food-insecure households beyond the simple and widespread model of charitable food assistance that we know best (e.g. food banks.) Professors Catherine Mah (Memorial University) and Valerie Tarasuk (University of Toronto) of PROOF, for instance, proposed a construction of food insecurity as a problem with symbolic political meaning. In studying Hansard records, they noted that 80 per cent of the time that food insecurity is mentioned, it is brought up as part of the opposition’s rhetoric in criticizing government inaction. This issue of competing political interests leaves household food insecurity on the government agenda without much clear policy direction or action from the government.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how researchers and advocates present policy options for eliminating food insecurity in Canada. In general, the research trends presented at both events advocated for the introduction of a basic income, and the enhancement of existing social supports for both food-insecure populations, and new farmers and other agricultural producers across Canada. The advocacy work focusing on the individual needs of provinces and territories will be crucial as the Liberal government develops its national food strategy moving forward.

Priscilla Mak is a 2018 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. Prior to her graduate studies, she received a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of Toronto and worked in the not-for-profit sector and the Ontario Public Service. An advocate of civic engagement, Priscilla sits on the Mississauga Public Library Board and is an active member of the CivicAction Emerging Leaders Network. Her policy interests include municipal governance and tackling food insecurity.

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