Pandemic has exposed the rifts in our social fabric

Posted on April 22, 2020 in Equality Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

If the COVID-19 pandemic has, in many respects, brought out the best in us, it has also exposed the most glaring rifts in our social fabric. As we wait anxiously for a return to a world no longer in the grip of global paralysis, this time has given us an opportunity to reflect on what a just and equitable society could look like, one that is measured by how well it takes care of its most disenfranchised members.

We have all either witnessed, or participated in, acts of community solidarity, demonstrating kindness and generosity towards our neighbours. At the same time, the crisis we are living through reveals where the deepest fault lines lie.

Indeed, many of the requirements necessary to ensure that we shelter in place are based on the belief that everyone has a smart phone with a generous data plan, ready access to computers and wi-fi, a car, and a credit card.

There is also a classist assumption that everyone has access to food when, regrettably, this is not the case. The pandemic has significantly heightened food insecurity for far too many households. Most affected are the millions who were food insecure before the virus hit. And the default belief that food banks are the answer is also not the case.

Food insecurity is defined as inadequate access to food due to financial constraints. Prior to the current crisis, some four million Canadians faced food insecurity. In Toronto alone, one in eight people cannot access the food they need.

Food insecurity is especially evident in racialized communities. Black households are three-and-a-half times more likely to be food insecure than white households. Approximately 12 per cent of white children live in food insecure households compared to 36 per cent of Black children.

As businesses closed and shelves emptied, food banks and food services that provide good produce at affordable prices became increasingly overwhelmed by requests for desperately needed access to food.

When schools shut down, students who had benefited from nutrition programs returned to households already struggling to put food on the table. Many of these folks cannot afford to amass a stockpile of food, nor do they have the option of waiting in slow moving line-ups.

Seeing that the lack of access to food had reached crisis level in a matter of days, the federal government announced additional funding for food banks as part of its stimulus package. Prime Minister Trudeau declared that funds would be made available “to meet the urgent food needs of the most vulnerable, including people living in northern and Indigenous communities. This money will help food banks to buy and deliver provisions to those who need them.”

Despite the fact that Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, in which the right of all people to food and to feed themselves in dignity is entrenched, we have for years relied on the charitable sector, food banks in particular, to fulfill the state’s obligation to meet this right. While food banks can be a viable stopgap in the short term, this is not how we will end hunger nor will this ever be a viable means to improving access to good food.

Relying on overwhelmed food banks is especially problematic in this moment. In Toronto alone nearly 40 per cent of food bank programs have been closed due to COVID-19. Moreover, food banks give out, at most, a three-day supply of food, thus ensuring the necessity of repeat visits.

FoodShare Toronto currently delivers nearly 2,000 boxes of fresh produce to priority neighbourhoods every week, each box providing a family of four with one week of food, and we anticipate that deliveries will only increase.

Long-term solutions lie in systemic changes that support liveable wages, Basic Universal Income, and address racial and other forms of inequity that effectively prevent people from securing steady employment, benefits, housing and enough nutritious food to eat.

The pandemic will end, but structural inequities – ones that ensure that those who are most well off are the best protected – will not, unless we insist on correcting a long-standing pattern of social wrongs. If anything good is to come out of a pandemic that shook the world, surely it must be our collective will to seize this opportunity and take stock so that we can move towards a more just society.

Paul Taylor is executive director of FoodShare Toronto.

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