It’s not a scarcity issue, it’s about knowledge and access. We have the means to fix that, in Canada and globally
By Sylvain Charlebois
Atlantic Institute for Market Studies
Hunger is horrid, an undesirable state few deliberately choose. We know that over 800 million suffer from hunger around the globe.
In the Western world, hunger surrounds us without knowing that it’s there. It’s estimated that four million Canadians experience food insecurity regularly. World Hunger Day, on May 28, should help bring that into focus.
Hunger is cruelly invisible and unfairly discriminatory. Women, the disabled, Indigenous and people living in northern communities are disproportionally hungry compared to the average Canadian.
Despite having access to one of the more affordable food baskets in the world, relative to household income, vulnerable populations in Canada are severely affected by hunger.
But while hunger is a real issue, there’s little evidence that food is becoming increasingly scarce in the world. In fact, never in history has the supply of food per capita been greater than in the last three decades or so.
Agriculture is serving the world and Canadians quite well, but the number of food insecure Canadians is unacceptably high. It’s been estimated that over 850,000 Canadians visit a food bank every month and a third of them are children.
Food banks can make the imperceptible nature of hunger more noticeable.
Food banks are powerful mechanism to redistribute food to those in need. Grocers, companies, farmers and most organizations in the food system participate to realign resources and support Canadians with less means, for the short and longer term.
Food banks can quickly provide distribution improvements and foster ideas for programs and improved linkages between food banks and other social agencies. They also offer long-term solutions in redesigning societal approaches to reducing food insecurity and poverty by using volunteers and, most importantly, compassion. Food banks are truly a miracle of the human spirit.
Food banks ought to be used as portals to a community in which wealth is exchanged, redistributed for the sake of equality, democracy and welfare for all. Food banks should be demystified and more attention given to them as we try to figure out how to alleviate hunger.
Beyond the reality of hunger and food banks is our relationship with food itself. For most of us, that’s changing. Consumers appear to be more engaged, wanting to understand how food is produced, processed, distributed and sold. Some want industry to be more transparent and comply with expectations that are often different than rules set by regulators.
But Canadians are also largely food illiterate. Most have never lived on a farm, so they see food through the lens of an urban-centric lifestyle, without appreciating the complexities of both ends of the food continuum. As we sought more convenience in feeding ourselves, we cooked less and became complacent about food while expecting more.
This is the unfortunate legacy of schools not looking at food as an important piece of society. Food education was marginalized for decades but the younger generations expect something different.
To change this, Canadian schools need to become knowledge nucleuses for agriculture and food. Breakfast programs, gardens in classes and school yards, a curriculum with a greater focus on food systems and cooking would make significant differences in children’s lives – and for educators.
As this greater emphasis on food gets more institutionalized, Canadians should become healthier. And as more of us know what’s good, bad and utterly objectionable, the chances of anyone suffering from hunger should be greatly reduced.
Education is likely the most powerful tool we have to deal with hunger as a nation, especially among youth. Self-efficacy in the kitchen and adequate knowledge of dietary recommendations can go a long way when budgets are constrained.
Some people suggest food should be a right in Canada. It’s much more than that. It’s a necessity of life, like air and water. Anyone claiming food is a right undermines the intricacies of food systems and how food connects us all.
With hunger, the big picture is quite simple but solutions are far less simple. People will be left behind, no matter how much food we produce.
The world population is expected to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. Food production must in turn double by 2050. But with more efficient technologies and better knowledge, agriculture is up to the challenge, particularly if we encourage youth to connect with food systems.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.