Poverty and food security in our new COVID-dominated reality

Poverty and food security in our new COVID-dominated reality
The curve is flattening. Businesses are starting up again. The sun is out. People are starting to imagine a post-COVID world. And, in this new world, will we take the lessons of the past several months to implement progressive policies to confront the societal wrongs exposed by the pandemic?

Food insecurity was a crisis before COVID-19 hit and rapidly became even worse since the lockdown. Between mid-March and the end of April, food bank use rates tripled. A line graph would reveal that visits to food banks follow an overall upward trajectory with visits during certain points as much as six times higher compared to the same period last year.

Pre-pandemic, 4.4 million people in Canada were food insecure. Within a mere three months, that number is now much higher. Moreover, households facing food insecurity are divided along racial lines. Black households are 3.5 times more likely to be food insecure than white households. In this country, 36.6 per cent of Black children are food insecure compared to 12.4 per cent of white children.

When we look at a map of Canada’s largest city, we can see at a glance that low-income, racialized neighbourhoods are experiencing the highest rates of COVID infection. Glenfield-Jane Heights, which centres around Jane between Sheppard and Finch in the northwest pocket of Toronto, has the highest number of cases at 469 with a rate of 1,538 cases per 100,000 population — an infection rate that is 22 times higher than in the Beaches, one of Toronto’s more affluent areas. 

The neighbourhoods with the highest incidents of infection are also where food insecurity is most acute. The overlapping of food insecurity, soaring infection rates, precarious employment and race is not coincidental. Just the opposite. 

Systemic racism and embedded inequities guaranteed that a map showing which folks have been hit hardest by the pandemic was a foregone conclusion. We saw this coming — the data was not a surprise to many of us.

For years now, our governments and decision makers have falsely isolated hunger and access to quality food as an issue that exists independently of other societal inequities — racism, inadequate housing, job precarity — and have thus justified food charity as the appropriate response. The pandemic has laid bare that hunger does not exist in isolation from other factors. 

Nevertheless, the degree to which this complete forfeiting of responsibility is embedded in the social fabric was evident in the federal government’s emergency food response. 

The government provided $100 million in funding at the beginning of April to a handful of national organizations, who in turn were charged with distributing the monies to regional and local groups to purchase food and other basic necessities — essentially putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Again, the government outsourced its moral and political duties to charities offering short term relief.

Let’s be clear. Poverty has been reframed as hunger. And hunger has been positioned as an inevitable problem that can be solved through corporate handouts. 

The reality is that cost is the biggest barrier to accessing good food, and food charity cannot solve poverty. To end food insecurity, we need good-paying jobs, livable wages, an adequate income floor and job stability. We need affordable housing and a suite of publicly provided services such as affordable child care and elder care.

In one of the richest countries in the world, public policy should at very least advance health equity and a decent quality of life for all and not the response to a rhetorical, what’s the bare minimum to get by?

Not all of us have the privilege of go-forward approaches. We cannot go forward without a commitment to addressing the past wrongs that are the foundation for present day inequities. It’s time to advance reparations, truly dismantle systems of oppression, directly address white supremacy and the legacy of colonialism if we truly want to go forward in a way that supports us all in feeding ourselves, our families and our communities with dignity. 

In this moment, ripe with the potential of political renewal, we have a chance to leave a different legacy. Let’s seize this momentum for significant transformation and build the type of country that works for all of us long into the future.

Paul Taylor is the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, Canada’s largest food justice organization.

Image: Courtesy of FoodShare Toronto

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