‘Everybody eats’: Making a case for food affordability as an election issue

Click to play video: 'Food Security proving to be a key election issue'
Food Security proving to be a key election issue
WATCH: Food security proving to be a key election issue – Sep 18, 2019

Canadians want affordable food, and they’re hungry for Canada’s political leaders to take notice.

That is, according to a new survey by Angus Reid and the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, which found 60 per cent of Canadians believe food security and prices deserve more attention during the federal election.

The survey, conducted on Sept. 9, asked 1,524 Canadians to rank which food- and agriculture-related issues they believe should be prioritized by leadership candidates.

Food security and affordability were voted the most important issue. The concern was shared across all regions, but Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces felt the strongest, at 68 per cent.

“I think it points to how much financial pressure Canadians are under right now,” said Sylvain Charlebois, Agri-Food Labs director and Dalhousie professor.

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“If you add lodging and inflation, you can see Canadians are looking in different places to save a little bit of money, and food costs appear to be a concern for a greater number of them.”

Food Banks Canada sees that first hand. In 2018, food banks across the country saw more than a million visits a month.

“It’s clear that much more still needs to be done,” said Sylvie Pelletier, a spokesperson for the non-profit organization.

“Food insecurity affects Canadians in all aspects of their lives — including their physical and mental health. Ultimately, the root cause of food insecurity comes down to poverty and the fact that far too many people are living with inadequate incomes and supports.”

Click to play video: 'Keeping edible food out of the landfill'
Keeping edible food out of the landfill

On the campaign trail, Canada’s party leaders often lump housing with the cost of living. Affordability was the second most important issue for voters, according to an Ipsos poll released last week.

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“We know where people spent their money — the first is, obviously, on housing, and transportation is significant as well, but food is huge,” said Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos. “One of the really interesting things we found in our poll is that among those with children in the household, affordability is actually the No. 1 issue. Why? Because, of course, they’ve got more mouths to feed.”

But growing grocery bills don’t get as much recognition.

The average annual bill for a Canadian family of four was due to rise by $411 in 2019, according to Canada’s Food Price Report 2019, putting the average yearly grocery cost at approximately $12,157 a year.

“Food prices have been volatile for the last little while. I’m not surprised that more and more people are concerned,” Charlebois said.

“With vegetables, for example, prices are up 17 to 18 per cent year to year. That’s substantial given the fact Health Canada is asking Canadians to eat more vegetables. It’s not encouraging.”

But few Canadians had faith the topic would become an election issue. Only 31 per cent of the Angus Reid survey’s respondents believed it would happen.

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That could be a reflection of promises announced so far. Looking at the parties’ platforms, there are few, if any, specific references to food affordability.

The Green Party has promised to invest in farming programs to expand small-scale agriculture and increase access to local food by supporting rooftop and community gardens. The NDP’s platform mentions support for local food systems, farmers and a food-waste strategy. In their platform for re-election, the Liberal Party’s promises pertain to risk-management programs, cleaner fuels and supply management. The party does, however, promise to improve food security in Canada’s North, Inuit Nunangat.

Click to play video: 'Affordability is one of several factors stopping some Canadians in following latest Food Guide'
Affordability is one of several factors stopping some Canadians in following latest Food Guide

The Conservatives have not yet released their platform. However, in an email to Global News, the party pointed to its environment plan, which includes promises to develop technology and improve land-use practices related to farming.

For Food Bank Canada, improving food security starts with improving the overall cost of living.

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It’s important for the federal government to see how things like affordable childcare and pharmacare connect with the ability for Canadians to feel food secure in order to implement proper policies, said Pelletier.

Without that, she said, many Canadians will stay stuck in a “deep cycle of poverty.”

“Children continue to be grossly over-represented in food banks, and we believe that the high cost of childcare across the country is a main cause,” Pelletier said. “We’re hoping for a pharmacare program, too, so that seniors and people of all ages no longer choose between food and medication.”

When asked which party was best positioned to address food-security issues, a majority of respondents to the Angus Reid poll chose the Conservatives. The Liberals were picked second and the Green Party third.

However, the number of Canadians who answered “not sure” made it the top response nationwide, at 42 per cent.

Those numbers were consistent with Ipsos’ findings. When asked who is best to lead Canada on affordability, 25 per cent said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and 22 per cent said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The most popular answer among those polled — 29 per cent — was that none of the leaders would do a good job at making things more affordable.

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“It could be that Canadians haven’t heard a plan that resonates with them, or it could be the belief that government may not have all that much impact on affordability,” Simpson said.

“What can the government do to bring down the price of food? Maybe Canadians are skeptical.”

The government has a “very strong role” in making it more affordable for Canadians to get food on the table, said Tammara Soma, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and co-founder of Food Systems Lab.

She suggested there’s a misconception about who is responsible for handling the problem.

“On one hand, I think food and food security has been taken for granted as a corporate issue instead of a government issue,” she said. “On the other hand, a lot of food insecurity is being solved through a charity like a food bank model, rather than having the government take a stronger role in food insecurity. This creates a gap in connecting.”

Food bank visits in Canada have stabilized over the last few years, according to the Canada Food Bank. The organization attributes this, in part, to an improved economy and social policy initiatives such as the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

But the number of single adults using food banks has doubled since 2001 from 30 per cent of households to 45 per cent in 2018.

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Pelletier attributes this to the same broken chain of policies.

“A large number of Canadians are receiving social assistance but can’t climb out of poverty due to the grossly inadequate supports and strict conditions that come with programs,” she said. “This is a population that, from a government program perspective, has few places to turn and seems to have been largely forgotten by federal and provincial governments.”

Click to play video: 'Farming and eating need to change to curb global warming: U.N. report'
Farming and eating need to change to curb global warming: U.N. report

Soma described the current situation as Canada’s “big paradox.” Think of it as a trinity, she said.

“In one corner, we’re a big exporting country. In the other, we waste a lot of food. About $49 billion of food is wasted every year in Canada. The third in this trinity is food insecurity — one in eight Canadians are food insecure, and one in six children are facing that food insecurity,” said Soma.

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“So, for a lot of people, it’s just not making sense right now. How can you have all these three colliding together?”

Soma said governments need to see food security as a systemic issue for any resolution to occur.

“The one thing every single Canada has in common is that we all eat,” she said.

“That’s just common sense.”

The Angus Reid survey was conducted via phone and is accurate plus or minus 2.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The parties included in the survey are those with candidates in several provinces who have a chance to win at least one seat.

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