The holiday season has long been a time for annual food drives, and food banks are an important lifeline for millions of Canadians. But growing evidence shows that charity is not a durable solution to food insecurity.
The PROOF research group was founded a decade ago to study the approaches that actually work, providing evidence-based recommendations for policy change. The current investigators are Valerie Tarasuk, professor emerita of nutritional sciences and public health at the University of Toronto, Herb Emery, professor of economics at the University of New Brunswick, and Daniel Dutton, assistant professor of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University.
PROOF’s work has shown that policy interventions need to drive improved household incomes, especially at the lowest end of the spectrum. When we raise this floor, people spend the money in all sorts of ways that improve food security in the long run.
The added economic stability gives people the agency to choose to enroll in programs that help them land higher paying jobs or find more stable places to live.
This includes stronger policies around minimum wage, social assistance, income tax, child benefits, and other income supports like universal basic income. Even though these programs are not directly targeted at food security, they have a cascading effect.
Provinces can also help by boosting employment standards, supporting collective bargaining, providing better job opportunities, and fighting against racism and other discrimination-based barriers to the labour market.
Despite this compelling evidence, Canada remains locked into short-term quick fixes. Our network of non-profit food charities has only grown through the pandemic and inflation crisis.
Food charity does not reduce food insecurity. It only addresses the symptoms but not the root causes.
Moreover, PROOF has demonstrated that there is a ‘substantial and persistent disconnect’ between the number of food-insecure Canadians and the number actually accessing food banks. In her 2019 study on the topic, Tarasuk found that food banks are viewed as a last resort, and only 1 in 5 households with severe food insecurity used them.
It was far more common to ask friends or family for help, or to miss bill payments, further worsening their financial security. Food banks are temporary stop gaps that do little to help people become independent.
In her article for The Conversation, Tracy Smith-Carrier argues that real solutions will require us to abandon our moral judgements on who is deserving of social support. Smith-Carrier, associate professor of business and humanitarian studies at Royal Roads University, explains how societal barriers are to blame for poverty, not individual failings.
Shocks to the system like the pandemic and recent rise in cost of living have shown just how close many Canadians are to poverty, through no fault of their own. Even Canadians holding down multiple jobs are not immune, but there should be no minimum bar for access to the basic resources needed for survival.
Food, shelter, and safety should be available to us all.
Food charity and policing food theft also come with their own price tags — money that could be better spent on programs that actually help to reduce poverty, promote health, and feed people months or years down the line.
That kind of safety net will require a full shift in mindset and commitment to policies that will change the trajectory of poverty in Canada.