Time to make healthy food a human right?

OPINION: Canadians like to pat ourselves on the back for universal health care — so why aren't we making sure people have access to healthy food?
By Corey Mintz - Published on June 26, 2017
Regent Park, a mixed-income neighbourhood with a significant number of affordable housing units, hosts a weekly farmers market. (Facebook)

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Is access to healthy food a basic human right?

When talking about inalienable rights, we have not generally been in rush to add to a list that includes such esteemed entitlements as freedom from discrimination, from slavery or torture, to peacefully assemble, to own property, to marry, and to a fair public hearing — which themselves only came after prolonged debate and many setbacks, and some of which are far from settled even now.

These are not, most of us now believe, nice-to-haves. They are necessities.

Because endowing people with rights involves creating responsibilities (borne by governments, companies, and each of us individually), the list of rights and freedoms to which we believe every living human is entitled is a hard one to expand: it isn’t a pantheon that we just add to like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think that everyone should, at least one time, get to taste really a good Thai mango salad, one that’s really spicy and fishy. But I wouldn’t be quick to append it to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since the United Nations adopted the UDHR in 1948, however, our attitude to food and hunger has changed. A just-released Ipsos poll commissioned by Community Food Centres Canada found that 95 per cent of Canadians believe having enough nutritious food to eat is a basic human right.

So who is responsible for feeding all these people?

When we’re born, if things go well, our parents see to our nutrition and safety. As we grow, hopefully we learn to take care of ourselves. But let’s be real. A lot of people are poor. A lot of people can’t afford nutritious food, or live in communities with limited access to any healthy dietary options, or don’t have parents, or parents who can provide for them. According to Food Secure Canada, “four million Canadians, among them 1.15 million children, have trouble putting food on the table. This problem is far worse in northern and remote communities, where, in Nunavut, for example, two thirds of children are food insecure.”

Of the 1,002 Canadians polled, 74 per cent believe that addressing food insecurity is the government’s job. Though the response was mixed, many see the task as one that needs to be to shared between government, charities, and individuals.

That doesn’t mean blindly handing out food or money.

Over generations, policies about hunger have shifted from focusing on supply to focusing on distribution. We produce more than enough food to feed everyone. But we waste much of it. And too many people either don’t have the land to grow their own food, or money to buy it.

“Accessing healthy food is very challenging for our community,” says Nadira Begum, advocacy mentor at Toronto’s Regent Park Community Food Centre. “People are low-income and they don’t have enough money to buy healthy food. People are working, and still they have to go to a food bank. And when they go to food banks, sometimes they get expired food or no choices for healthy food.”

Food is mentioned in the UN’s 1966 treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which describes “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger.”

The document goes on to outline the measures expected of governments to address agrarian development and equitable distribution of imports and exports, and was created largely to address the needs of under-developed countries that required support from the international community.

But what if you’re a rich country, and the hungry children are right here, too?

Last week, organizations from across the country gathered in Ottawa for the Food Policy for Canada Summit. The goal is to create a national food policy based on four pillars: public health, food security, the environment, and sustainable growth of the agriculture and food sector.

“I think the poll shows that there is a great deal of public support for our view that food is a human right and that food insecurity is a major concern of Canadians,” says Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada.

Canadians often espouse a superiority to Americans. Real or imagined, much of it is usually based on our public health care system, and more specifically on the idea that we see health care as a basic human right rather than a service that’s contingent on your finances.

But with doctors seeing younger and younger patients with cardiovascular illnesses, our health care system is going to become overtaxed with the fallout from our poor diets. We don’t teach young people to cook so we eat junk, and we get sick. And the dollar we save on education becomes two dollars we spend on health care.

By extension: if you think health care is a right, access to healthy food may turn out to be a part of that.

The poll also found that 96 per cent of Canadians believe that we need to teach children the skills necessary to choose and prepare healthy food. A more radical proposal to “provide vouchers to subsidize the purchase of fruit and vegetables for low-income households” was backed by 91 per cent of Canadians, who believe it would help address diet-related illnesses.

Regent Park, a mixed-income neighbourhood with a significant number of affordable housing units, hosts a weekly farmers market, at which community members have access to fresh produce at a reduced cost. Vouchers would scale this up to a two-way system, available both to residents without access to healthy food, and to farmers struggling to get a fair price for their produce.

“Being able to buy fresh produce at a reasonable cost,” says Community Food Centres Canada COO Kathryn Scharf, “looking at the value, and comparing it to avoided health care costs — what can we win for our society and for the people involved?”

Scharf points out Wholesome Wave, a program in the States in which SNAP (food stamp) recipients get double value to buy produce at farmers markets or participating grocery stores (that is, the voucher’s value is doubled when they’re buying fruits and vegetables). “We know how important it is,” Scharf says. “And we know how far we fall short on produce recommended servings. The really huge problem of food insecurity is not going to be solvable with this idea. But by having both subsidized, affordable markets and further incentives to draw people to them, it may create other pathways for changes in consumption. If we can move people along that path, particularly people we know are vulnerable to chronic disease, it’s quite low-cost.”

As we revisit our priorities, I would argue that the responsibility of government is not to feed us, but to preserve our freedom of self-determination. But people aren’t free to pursue their own interests if they grow up without enough to eat. It’s no more a nanny-state solution to make sure that children have nutritious food than it is to pave roads so that we can get wherever we choose to travel safely.  

The fact that a prosperous country has no strategy to ensure that Canadian children don’t suffer from malnutrition is inexcusable.

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