With over 18 percent of Canadian families experiencing food insecurity, Food Bucks could help alleviate the crisis

Sylvain CharleboisFood insecurity numbers in Canada have reached astonishing levels, making it hard to believe the extent of the crisis.

According to the latest Who’s Hungry report from Daily Bread and North York Harvest food banks, the number of people depending on food banks in Toronto has doubled compared to the previous year, with one out of every 10 individuals currently relying on them.

Food bank usage has hit an all-time high this year, with over 2.5 million visits recorded between April 2022 and March 2023, marking a staggering 50 percent increase from the previous year. Alarmingly, there are no signs of this trend slowing down. The Hunger Count, released last month by Food Bank Canada, revealed that over two million Canadians now rely on food banks.

Even Statistics Canada has joined the chorus of alarming food insecurity statistics, indicating that 18 percent of Canadian families experienced some degree of food insecurity in 2022. Regardless of where you look, the data is undeniably grim.

Poverty food bucks food insecurity
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While some have pointed fingers at Ottawa, provinces, or grocers for our society’s predicament, the reality is that our current situation results from a combination of various factors, many of which have nothing to do with Canada. Issues such as disrupted supply chains, the conflict in Ukraine, and the impact of climate change on global regions have all contributed.

In fact, when compared to many other countries, Canada is faring relatively better. For example, in Australia, the Foodbank Hunger Count 2023 reports that 3.7 million households, equivalent to 36 percent, have experienced varying levels of food insecurity in the past year. Earlier this year in the United Kingdom, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) revealed that food insecurity had risen to 25 percent.

Challenges have arisen even in the United States, the land known for affordable food. Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger relief and food rescue organization in the country, released a report showing that about 49 million individuals, or one in six Americans, sought assistance from hunger relief programs in the last year, a ratio higher than Canada’s.

Despite exporting over $85 billion worth of agri-food products, seeing so many Canadians going hungry is disheartening. The facts are clear, but our path to reducing food insecurity remains less so. Food banks are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, performing remarkable work with limited resources. However, they are designed to provide temporary relief, not a permanent solution.

Many reports include a comprehensive list of recommendations, such as expediting the construction of more affordable housing and swiftly implementing the Canada Disability Benefit, guaranteeing a minimum income. However, these mechanisms require additional capital, increased government involvement, and added bureaucracy. Canadians already pay a substantial amount of taxes and may not be eager to fund new costly programs that could become permanent, especially as servicing our debt continues to rise.

Nevertheless, one program could offer much-needed assistance to people in need without straining existing not-for-profits or significantly adding to public expenditure. Nova Scotia, Montreal, and British Columbia have successfully launched community food coupon programs. These programs aim to support low-income households in acquiring fresh, nutritious, locally sourced food, enhancing food literacy, and encouraging healthier food choices.

Notably, these programs provide participating households with regular allocations of an alternative currency, known as “food bucks,” that can only be redeemed at farmers’ markets. Unlike grocery rebates, which have cost Ottawa over $2.5 billion without assurance that the money was spent on food, these coupons can only be used to purchase food and support our farmers.

The costs associated with implementing these programs are minimal. Nova Scotia’s program costs approximately $350,000, while Montreal’s received support from Desjardins totalling $50,000. In contrast, British Columbia’s program, launched in 2021, requires about $1 million a year to assist 10,000 households. The province has the second-lowest food insecurity rate in the country, at 16.9 percent, according to Statistics Canada, despite soaring real estate prices.

If Canada needs one program that can make a substantial impact right now, offering the best value for our investment, it would undoubtedly be such a program.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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