Eating is an essential act of survival that we do every day. But eating is much more than biology. It's also social, cultural, psychological, emotional and political.
The food we eat and the circumstances we eat it in tell us who we are and where we belong in our society.
What does it tell us about who we are, and where we belong, when we can’t afford to buy the food we need and want for ourselves and our families? All of us have had the experience of being hungry, having skipped a meal or as we await our next. But for most of us, we know that food will soon be available. That is an entirely different experience than having no food in the cupboard and no money to buy more. This condition of “food insecurity” affects at least 4 million Canadians, including more than a million kids. What does it tell us about who we are as a society that we tolerate this in a land of such wealth and abundance?
Most Canadians cannot bear the thought that so many in this country are hungry. That's why we have food banks, an effort started by ordinary Canadians in their communities, distributing food to those who didn’t have enough to eat. But after more than thirty years of trying, food banks have been unable to solve the problem of hunger. When they started in the 80s, food banks saw themselves as a temporary measure. They expected to fold up and disappear once the economy improved. But even though we are vastly more wealthy as a country, the number of Canadians using food banks remains high, and the number of food insecure Canadians is even higher.
"What does it tell us about who we are as a society that we tolerate this in a land of such wealth and abundance?"
It’s not surprising that food banks haven’t been able to eliminate hunger, because the upstream problem is poverty. Food insecurity is one of the many symptoms of poverty and will disappear only when we effectively tackle its source.
As an academic and researcher who has studied food insecurity for more than twenty years, I yearn for the day when food banks can close because they are no longer needed. Two years ago, I learned about an exciting new national campaign to promote an unconditional basic income guarantee to eliminate poverty. I became a founding member of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee and have watched this idea take off. While there have been national conversations off and on about basic income for many years, it now appears basic income’s time has finally come.
As part of a progressive package of social supports including programs like pharmacare and affordable housing, an effective basic income guarantee really could eliminate poverty. In doing so it would also eliminate food insecurity and a host of other social determinants of stress, poor health, suffering and premature death. Some of us believe there is a strong moral and ethical imperative for us to look after each other. There is also a strong economic case. We know that for every dollar we invest in reducing poverty, eventually we will save about two dollars — in health care, education and the justice system.
"It’s not surprising that food banks haven’t been able to eliminate hunger, because the upstream problem is poverty."
For these reasons, even those uninterested in poverty reduction have become supporters. A basic income guarantee could help alleviate the pervasive sense of insecurity that we are experiencing, as full-time jobs with benefits disappear and climate change creates uncertainty. At Queen’s university where I teach, at least 40% of the undergraduate students are on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications. That anxiety has in part been created by the systematic underfunding and dismantling of social programs, and years of being told that we are on our own to face the uncertainties of life. Intense individualism and competition for allegedly scarce resources (like a decent, stable job) have taken an immense toll.
All across the country health professionals, non-governmental organizations, elected officials and ordinary citizens are becoming enthusiastic about basic income. Food Banks Canada has endorsed basic income. Mayors Nenshi (Calgary) and Iveson (Edmonton) are fans, as well as mayors in many other cities. The recently elected premier of PEI, Wade McLaughlin, has pledged his support. Kingston City Council recently became the first elected body to endorse basic income, and did so unanimously. Now other municipal governments are following suit.
"It now appears basic income’s time has finally come."
Just last month Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, has begun seriously considering a federal basic income guarantee, and newly appointed Quebec Minister of Employment and Social Solidarity, François Blais, has been mandated to explore a basic income for Quebecers. Former Senator Hugh Segal is one of Canada’s biggest (and most persistent) champions of basic income. The Ontario Public Health Association, the Canadian Public Health Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and many other health professionals and their associations are calling for a basic income guarantee to eliminate poverty, improve health, and save Medicare.
Well-known author and activist Naomi Klein recommends the implementation a basic income as the most important step in solving global climate change. She believes it will foster a sense of collectivity, enabling us to work together to tackle this urgent public health problem.
From solving poverty and food insecurity to facilitating action on global climate change, a basic income guarantee can give us a solid collective footing to work together again, to find new ways to live together and more sustainably on the planet, and reimagine our collective future. Implementing a basic income guarantee would tell us a lot about who we imagine ourselves to be as Canadians — a compassionate and pragmatic people who understand that addressing the upstream causes of poor health and premature death is a nation’s most urgent and important goal.
Elaine Power is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies at Queen’s University. She teaches social determinants of health to several hundred undergraduate students and does research about food and eating, especially in the context of poverty. She is a co-founder of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee and a member of the Basic Income Canada Network.