“The freedom of man, I contend, is the freedom to eat.”
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December of 1948, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, without distinction of any kind. Importantly, this freedom and equality includes the right to sufficient food to ensure a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of an individual, yet in Canada alone four million people are food insecure.
Food insecurity, as defined by the Household Food Security Module, is a lack of access to adequate food due to financial constraint. This could mean a parent skipping meals so there’s enough food for their children on the table, or a student not eating for a whole day to save money for textbooks. Food insecurity doesn’t look the same for everyone, but if you’ve ever had to worry about not having enough food, or had to rely on low-cost or unhealthy options, there’s a good chance you’ve had a taste of it. At a September event hosted by Vibrant Communities Calgary and Basic Income Calgary, Dr. Lynn McIntyre, professor emerita of community health sciences at the University of Calgary, delivered a keynote address that explored what a principles-based basic income guarantee would mean to the food insecure of Calgary.
In a country like Canada, where the only legislation to address food insecurity in more than 30 years has been to support donations to food banks, the idea that a basic income guarantee could do more to ameliorate the issue than food-based solutions might sound unintuitive, even strange. But, as McIntyre told an audience of more than 220 Calgarians, no study in Canada has shown that any food-based program reduces household food insecurity rates.
For those of us who have unquestioningly accepted the food bank model as the best, perhaps even the only, way to impact the lives of the food insecure, this will be hard to swallow.
However, McIntyre is far from alone in her critique of the charity model, which Mary Ellen Prange, of the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health, calls “an ineffective and counterproductive response to food insecurity.”
That’s not to say that food banks are the villains of this story, but neither are they the heroes. Indeed, the director of policy and research for Food Banks Canada has himself stated that “income, low income, is at the root of food insecurity, root of hunger, [and] root of food bank use.” In short, as noble as it might make us feel to donate, we’re probably not making the difference we think we are. At best, our charity is a band-aid. At worst? It could be part of the problem.
The good news is, as McIntyre explained in our Enough for All Community Conversation, food insecurity is highly receptive to income receipt. Research has shown that when people are given the money they need to buy the food they need, food insecurity rates can decrease dramatically.
It’s not that radical, but call the above income receipt “basic income,” and the issue is politicized faster than you can wolf down a bowl of food bank hamper staple mac ’n ’ cheese.
For no reason I have ever been able to discern, some of us are born with more and better, and some with less and (much) worse. We do not earn the social, economic or geographic privileges we are afforded at our entrance into this world — they are a matter of fortunate, or unfortunate, circumstance.
If we don’t believe that those differences should decide the freedom and dignity of a life, if we believe, instead, that all deserve justice and choice — not only to eat, but to work, play and participate fully as citizens in our city and our country — then perhaps we might be willing to take a closer look at basic income.
There is enough for all, if we decide that all deserve enough.
Regardless of where you find yourself on the political spectrum, or compass, or whether you disavow political affiliation altogether, you are part of this conversation. Basic income and the impact that it can have on food insecurity, as well as numerous other contemporary societal concerns that are not within the scope of this article, are worth talking about.
There is enough for all, if we decide that all deserve enough. ❚
Katarina Graves is an engagement and administrative assistant at Vibrant Communities Calgary, a non-profit organization working to address the root causes of poverty in that city.
This opinion column represents the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.