Ottawa needs a poverty reduction strategy

by Michael Maidment, Chief Executive Officer Ottawa Food Bank

Food is arguably the most important item to people. Most obviously, we need to eat to live, to survive, so why is the issue of food missing from the political conversation in Canada?

Food is all around us. We work to “put food on our tables”. We spend time planning meals, shopping for and preparing food. We celebrate with food; from birthdays to wedding anniversaries and special occasions such as Easter, Christmas, and Eid. We even watch television shows about food.

Canada’s largest employer is food giant George Weston Ltd. and employs over 202,000 people. The list of Canada’s top 20 revenue generating companies contains five food-related organizations where food is a significant part of their revenues (Financial Post FP500 2018 Ranking). Also, according to the advertising industry, Canadians see nearly $160 billion worth of food and drink ads every year.

Yet, despite all our focus on food, over 4 million Canadians are food insecure (Proof 2017). According to Ottawa Public Health, an estimated 13.9 per cent of households do not have enough food. More than 55,000 people report not having enough food to eat, of which 39,078 people visit a food bank in Ottawa each month. Thousands more visit community meal programs to help fill the gap and 13,500 students receive breakfast every day through a school breakfast program.

The question is, how to solve the issue of hunger?

We know that we will not solve the issue of food insecurity by simply opening more food banks. Once thought to be temporary, food banks are the “emergency room” of the social safety net. It’s an emergency when a family doesn’t have enough food to eat and providing food to that family is what’s needed. However, that food will not reduce the family’s food insecurity. Food insecurity is an income problem, a poverty problem, not a food problem. Therefore, if we want to reduce food insecurity, we first need to reduce poverty.

So how do we reduce poverty?

Basic income is a starting point. While the Ontario government scrapped the Basic Income Pilot, evidence still shows that a basic income is our best opportunity to significantly reduce poverty and food insecurity. Take the Canada Child Tax Benefit (CCB) as an example. In Ontario, poverty among families with children has been reduced by 24 per cent since the benefit began. The CCB is a form a basic income. It targets families living in poverty who have children. What’s interesting is that during the same period since the CCB began, single individuals without children – so no Canada Child Benefit – experienced a 24 per cent increase in poverty.

But what can we do here in the city of Ottawa?

We can start by creating a municipal poverty reduction strategy – although I should likely say “re-creating”. The community created a poverty reduction strategy in 2010, however following a municipal election that year, the strategy was scrapped. A municipal strategy would provide valuable coordination of the non-profit sector and allow the sector to focus on key areas that make a measurable impact. A local strategy would also allow the community to introduce new initiatives, like a series of tax clinics, similar to the ones offered in Hamilton by the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty, as well as clinics to help people navigate the complex world of Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program. These simple municipal programs could help people access much needed income already available to them.

So, what are we asking of our municipal leaders?

We need to draw from proven successes – like the Hamilton example, and create a local poverty reduction strategy. With record poverty, record food bank use, and record waitlists for affordable housing, there’s no better time than now.

It is time that our municipal leaders look into the cost of poverty and understand that doing nothing actually costs more than addressing the problem. It is time that they realized a healthy city – free from food insecurity and poverty – benefits us all.