Graham Riches argues that there is a need to reframe the issue of food insecurity in terms of rights, not charity. First published for Impact Ethics.
Feeding hungry Canadians with donated, surplus food is a practice that was imported in the early 1980s from the USA and has become the primary task of charitable food banks. Yet, “food charity,” supported by the food industry and corporate social responsibility, does not work.
Framing food insecurity as a matter of charity is ineffective and ethically challengeable. It also disguises the true extent and causes of food insecurity, namely income poverty and underemployment. Furthermore, it stigmatizes low-income individuals and undermines their human right to adequate food and nutrition. Government looks the other way. Public policy is neglected.
Food security for all requires changing the conversation to “the right to food.” The problem is that domestic hunger is now socially constructed as a matter for charity, no longer a priority concern for government. Long forgotten is Canada’s ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976). Food is recognized as a basic human need and a human and legal right—protected under international law, and an obligation of government to “respect, protect and fulfill.”
Yet minimalist government (federal and provincial), lower taxes, downloading, and privatization have since de-politicized hunger and the right to food, now airbrushed from political consciousness and public policy. No wonder wealthy, food secure Canada, despite a universal right to health care, has 4 million people (12.5% of the population) experiencing food insecurity due to lack of money. The level of food insecurity that these Canadians experience varies, from worrying about running out of food, to not being able to afford a balanced diet, to going hungry, missing meals, and—at the most extreme—going whole days without eating. The rates of people experiencing food insecurity in Canada’s North are scandalously high. Alarmingly, these figures are underestimates: First Nations people living on reserves and the homeless are absent from the count.
Given such high levels of food deprivation, food banks cannot cope. Many run out of food, cut back, impose tighter rationing, and close early. Special dietary needs may not be met and emergency food provisioning fails to prevent long term food insecurity. Of the 1 in 4 food insecure Canadians turning to food banks, too many remain hungry. But is it food that is lacking, or its affordability?
Significantly, of the nearly 1 in 8 food insecure Canadian households, 62% are working poor. While the inability to access food is caused, in part, by totally inadequate welfare benefits, it is very much a consequence of low wages, inadequate minimum wage levels and underemployment—people trying to manage on short-term part-time jobs and to feed multiple people on the wages of a single earner. It’s money that is lacking, not Canada’s food supply.
Of course, there’s a moral imperative to feed hungry people, but food charity functions largely as a moral safety valve: donors feel good but food poverty remains entrenched. There is an alternative. By changing the conversation to the right to food, as ratified by Canada, domestic hunger, and the realization of food security are re-framed as central to public policy and obligations of the Federal and Provincial Governments.
Informed by human rights principles—universality, human dignity, accountability and non-discrimination—the right to food is realized when all “have physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement.” It is not about charity but the right to feed oneself and one’s family with dignity and enabling people to produce or acquire food in normal and customary ways—having sufficient money to make affordable food choices.
Importantly, the right to food is a justiciable concept, a legal entitlement actionable through the courts. Today, its progressive influence on public policy and achieving food security for all would be strengthened by its explicit entrenchment within the Canadian constitution, as is done in other countries.
The obligation of government to “respect protect and fulfill” the right to food means: (1) it not taking actions limiting people’s access to food—by cutting income benefits, applying punitive welfare sanctions, or failing to raise minimum wages; (2) preventing powerful third parties from violating the right to food—by regulating food safety; and (3) ensuring dignified food access to food for vulnerable people—by ensuring fair income distribution, an adequate basic income (Guaranteed Annual Income) and a legally enforceable right to adequate assistance for all persons in need.
The spirit and intent of the right to food obligates government to introduce national framework legislation to guide food policy and its implementation informed by national standards, indicators, targets, benchmarks, and timelines. The goal is to connect the policy dots between income, food, nutrition, public health, and social programs directed at poverty reduction and food justice for all.
Adopting the right to food requires a large dose of political will. Yet, as Louise Arbour has written: “there will always be a place for charity but charitable responses are not an effective, principled or sustainable substitute for enforceable human rights guarantees.”
For more on food insecurity read: First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food?
Professor Emeritus Graham Riches served as Director of the UBC School of Social Work from 1998 until his retirement in 2008. He was a co-founder of the Canadian Review of Social Policy and of the Vancouver Food Policy Council. Today he remains active in research, writing and public speaking within BC, Canada and internationally about domestic hunger, social policy and the Right to Food.