Thanks for the opportunity to address the committee today.
I'll start by saying who we are. Community Food Centres Canada builds health, belonging, and justice in low-income communities through the power of food. We work with over 120 community-based partners in 60 cities across the country to establish welcoming places where people can come together to cook, grow, share, and advocate for good food.
We're interested in the development of a national food policy because it offers an opportunity to create a more systems-wide or joined-up approach to our food system, one that brings together economic, agricultural, health, and social concerns.
In our view, our country's long-standing focus on growing and exporting ever-increasing amounts of commodity crops is causing great damage to our collective health and to our planet. That being said, any national food policy worth enacting in this age of climate change, food insecurity, and burgeoning chronic disease must ensure that food production nurtures the environment and supports public health. We believe this is achievable so long as a national food policy views food as a basic right, and always through a health and sustainability lens.
At Community Food Centres Canada our policy interests lie first and foremost with food insecurity and poverty, the key drivers in determining whether lower-income Canadians can put good food on their tables. This priority falls mostly within the first pillar of the policy, but addressing this issue requires a whole-of-government approach with mechanisms that lie largely outside of an agricultural framework. That is to say, the current framing implies approaches or solutions that will not necessarily help to solve the problem.
Currently, over four million Canadians are food insecure because they don't have the income necessary to purchase the food they need to thrive. Think of inadequate minimum wages, welfare rates, increasingly part-time and precarious work, and unaffordable housing.
Food insecurity is unnecessary, unjust, and from a policy perspective, has great costs associated with the toll it takes on physical and mental health. Depending on the level of severity of food insecurity, research has shown that health care costs are anywhere from 23% to 121% higher in food insecure households.
We also know that poor nutrition contributes to billions of dollars in costs that come from diet-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes—$14 billion—and cardiovascular disease—$28 billion. We also know that diet-related disease disproportionately affects the poor. For example, type 2 diabetes is four times higher in the lowest-income group versus highest-income group.
We have a massive problem that we need to get right, and yet the language of the first pillar, which is to put more healthy, high-quality food on the tables of families across the country, is concerning. This implies that either more food needs to be produced, that food needs to be more affordable, or that it needs to be distributed better. This may be a natural tendency for a policy that is placed within the mandate of the Ministry of Agriculture; however, with a few exceptions, such as in Canada's north where distribution monopolies and physical supply of food exacerbate poverty in hindering access to food, a lack of availability of affordable food is not the issue. The issue is the lack of income. This necessary shift in framing is important to understand for any policy that aspires to impact on the issue.
The mandate of the Ministry of Agriculture has traditionally focused on commodity production at scale. When we ask agriculture to produce more food at lower prices, however, certain types of policies are implied, i.e., significant subsidies for large commodity producers, more chemicals, and higher yields per acre. This often amounts to a race to the bottom, where farm income and wages suffer, as do the types of careful stewardship that are required to ensure that our agricultural economy is environmentally sustainable. That is the third pillar.
Another pitfall of this framing is that it can lead to an increased focus on charity as the solution to food insecurity, specifically as it pertains to food waste. As food waste becomes recognized as a bigger and bigger issue, there has been a temptation to create a win-win by finding ways to further connect sources of waste with charitable distribution channels.
We would strongly suggest that further entrenching charitable responses to food insecurity is the wrong path. Waste needs to be addressed and deincentivized at source, and not redirected into the households of low-income Canadians through a partial or patchy charitable system.
If the answer is not cheaper food or reducing waste through charity, then what is it? Canadians need to be able to afford more and better-quality food, and there are no shortcuts to this end.
The types of policies required to advance the income security and food security goals are properly pursued through ministries that have the mandate to attack the problems at the level of scale and investment that they require, for example, the national poverty reduction strategy being driven by the Ministry of Families, Children and Social Development.
Moving people out of deep poverty will include policies like increasing transfer payments so the provinces have the means to increase social assistance rates and investing further in existing income security programs such as GST/HST credits for low-income earners. Given the role income plays in addressing food insecurity and improving health outcomes, this is an opportune time to explore the idea of a national basic income guarantee.
Despite the constraints that arise from the agricultural lens to address food insecurity, there are significant opportunities that can surface from a national food policy that takes a holistic approach to looking at issues across the food system, i.e., bringing together the ministries of agriculture, health, environment, social development, and indigenous affairs, and that also views these issues with a triple bottom-line lens as a guiding principle, that is, a lens that looks at policies from the vantage point of economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
Where we can readily see the value of this type of approach is where food and health policy intersect. Orienting our food system to health means looking beyond food simply as a commodity, and demands that health and food safety, the second pillar of the policy, be examined in a holistic and expansive way. Food safety is not simply food that won't make you sick tomorrow; it's food that won't make you sick in the long term, as a steady diet consisting of the sugar, fat, and salt contained in processed foods almost certainly will.
If our system of agricultural subsidies supports commodity crops that ultimately underpin processed food, which is at the heart of the chronic disease epidemic and is costing us billions in health care spending, perhaps under the rubric of a joined-up national food policy, we can examine this system to look at reducing harms and increasing benefits across the food system.