This past month, I’ve been getting ready to plant my garden. Seeds have been started, and the garden beds have been cleaned up. I’ve been dreaming about all the delicious, fresh veggies that will feed me all summer long. My spouse and I have also signed up for a CSA, a community supported agriculture box. We’ll receive a box of fresh, local veggies every week for the duration of the growing season. What we don’t grow ourselves, or get from our CSA box, we will easily be able to pick up at either of the two grocery stores that are walking distance from our home in central Winnipeg. For us, food is available, accessible, and affordable. We have the time and money to procure the foods we need and want in order to live well. In other words, we are food secure.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as “the condition in which all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” On a global scale, Canada is among the wealthiest of the nations and is one of the largest agricultural producers. Canada also ranks high on the Human Development Index, a measure of standard of life. Yet, when Olivier De Shutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, visited Canada in 2012 he was deeply concerned by what he learned. In an interview with the National Post, De Shutter commented, “It’s not because the country is a wealthy country that there are no problems. In fact, the problems are very significant and, frankly, this sort of self-righteousness about the situation being good in Canada is not corresponding to what I saw on the ground, not at all.”
The latest Canadian Community Health Survey reports over four million Canadians, including 1.15 million children, struggle to afford the food they need on a daily basis. That is one out of every eight households. In some Northern communities the rates of household food insecurity reach almost 50 percent. PROOF, a food insecurity research group, reports that insufficient social assistance, an increase in low-wage, part-time, and contract jobs, and a lack of affordable housing create difficult financial situations that make food insecurity a reality for an increasing number of people in Canada. How does one choose between paying the rent, purchasing prescription medication, or buying groceries? Flexible items, such as groceries, are the often the first to go for those on tight budgets.
It may come as no surprise that lower-income households are affected most by food insecurity. In fact, 70 percent of households on social assistance are food insecure. Newcomers to Canada, single mothers, students, and Indigenous peoples are also impacted more than other populations. It’s not only the unemployed who are food insecure, however. Over two thirds of the food insecure across Canada have jobs and earn wages.
If having a job doesn’t necessarily guarantee food security, what does? Both De Shutter and PROOF suggest that policies that ensure people have an adequate income are a big part of the solution. Food insecurity in Canada is not a problem of lack of food. Food in Canada, for the most part, is available and accessible, which is why many organizations and experts are calling for income-based interventions, such as better wages, secure jobs, and reforms to social assistance. Yet, charities such as food banks and soup kitchens continue to be the main focus of solutions despite the fact that fewer than half of the food insecure households use the services of food banks. These kinds of interventions provide essential stopgap services to people dealing with food insecurity, but they were never meant to become the permanent institutions that they are now.
In many ways, charitable responses to hunger seem like common sense. We have a surplus of food in our country, as well as a problem with food waste, so why not make sure the excess is moved on to those in need? It also seems to fit in very well with a Christian ethic. Jesus famously says in Matthew 25:35 and 40, “for I was hungry and you gave me food…Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” These verses have prompted charitable responses from the church over the years. From our own diocese of Rupert’s Land, Cathy Campbell writes, in Stations of the Banquet: Faith Foundations for Food Justice, “food pantries, meal programs and such activities… do not solve the problem, but they can reduce the distance, the abstractness, the dehumanization and objectification of the issues and suffering in our communities.” For privileged North Americans, this is a very important antidote to a culture that is prone to apathy.
Campbell writes that food has always been central to the Christian faith whether we recognize it or not. Almost every church gathering has food at the centre, whether it is potlucks, Bible studies, or worship services. She proposes that we seriously consider how our faith affects our day-to-day practices. She suggests that the challenge for the Church is to cultivate spiritual practices that open our eyes and hearts to others. Some of those practices include prayer, lament, acts of compassion, inclusion, and gratitude, but she also includes practices such as tithes, alms, and taxes. She calls these the “faith resources that our Christian tradition offers to us who, in the practical details of our everyday life and work, struggle for life abundant for all (John 10:10).”
We as a Church would do well to continue the necessary practices of compassion in feeding the poor and becoming close to those who suffer. Deep structural problems such as household food insecurity also require changes to policy. Advocating for the use of our tax dollars towards improving social assistance for the food insecure is a much-needed spiritual practice in this time. We are called to become transformed communities where everyone is welcome and able to come to the table to eat abundantly.
Zoe Matties makes her home in Treaty 1 Territory and the Red River watershed. She loves the taste of fresh carrots straight from the garden and finds joy in watching birds and walking in the woods. In her role as Manitoba Program Manager for A Rocha Canada, she works to grow programs that inspire wonder and hope though the integration of faith, creation care and everyday life.