September marks six months since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic of COVID-19. We’re using this milestone to take stock of the policy response so far and consider next steps as Canada continues to move from reaction to rebuilding. As part of this, First Policy Response is speaking to several policy experts to gather their thoughts on the key policy developments of these past six months, and what they think our next priorities should be.

This interview with Nick Saul, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, is part of a series of interview transcripts. You can read the full series here. This transcript has been edited for clarity. 


First Policy Response: I’ll start with the basic terminology question. When we’re talking about food insecurity, what does that mean?

Nick Saul: Well, it means you don’t have enough income to put food on the table, pure and simple. And I think that’s really important – we need to focus on income and define the problem as being connected to poverty and not hunger. I think when you frame the issue as hunger, you get food responses and you get charity. If you frame food insecurity as linked to poverty, you get policy and you get a human rights approach to food. So that’s key in our view.


FPR: What are some of the reasons that COVID has exacerbated food insecurity?

I think it’s critical to recognize that long before COVID arrived, food insecurity was a very significant problem in our country. Four and a half million Canadians struggled to put food on their table. That’s about 12 to 14 per cent. And if you go to a place like Nunavut, we’re looking at about 57 per cent. Black and Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by food insecurity. Their numbers are upwards of 30 per cent. So this was a very significant problem before COVID arrived. Many food-insecure people have attachment to the labour market – 65 per cent, in fact. So, that speaks to unlivable wages and no sick days and no benefits and just generally precarious work.

Canada was definitely not delivering on its commitments around economic and social rights. We’re signatories to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights – to the right to food, particularly – and as I’ve just described, we are falling very short on delivering on that. So, COVID comes along and just exacerbates all those problems: massive unemployment, people’s wages significantly reduced, and of course that disproportionately affects Black communities, Indigenous communities, racialized communities, women, young workers, low-wage workers.

The economy has bottomed out, so we have seen enormous stress in our communities since COVID hit mid-March. Food insecurity, which was one in eight households [prior to COVID], is now one in seven, so about a 39 per cent increase in food insecurity since the onset of COVID. And again, I look at it through the lens of race – for example, racialized communities are sitting at about 16 or 17 per cent unemployment right now, while the white community is around 9 per cent. So this has really exacerbated the divides in our society. These weren’t new things, but boy, are they much tougher now. And minimum-wage workers have been hit the hardest. The latest labour report data shows that 23 per cent of workers who are working in [low-wage] jobs have lost their jobs or have had their hours reduced by more than 50 per cent, whereas those making $40 an hour and up have had negligible impact on their employment, their wages and their hours of work. So this has really hit hard on the communities that were struggling in the first place.


FPR: Has the nature of that food insecurity changed? Back in March when this was first starting, there were concerns about either hoarding or the food supply chain being disrupted. How have those played out?

I think more or less, other than those early reports of hoarding, it hasn’t really been an issue. The supply chain has held pretty well. The issue is people don’t have enough income to walk into those places to get the food they need. So again, if you were middle-class or more stably employed, you can negotiate work from home, you could buy that extra food if you needed to, particularly in those early days when there was a concern about the supply chain. And for example, if you did run into some trouble with COVID, you could easily distance because you would have your ensuite bathroom and a big house. Well, you couldn’t do that if you were living as a big family in a one-bedroom apartment. So again, the divide has been pretty stark in terms of how various demographics and populations have experienced COVID. I think it’s really important to underline that.

So many people found themselves, for the first time, standing in a lineup to receive food. We’ve been watching that very carefully. Community Food Centres Canada does not believe that charitable food is any answer to the crisis around food insecurity. We try and focus very clearly on income-support programs and policies. And I would say that in the early going, there was money released to the emergency food sector, which our organization benefited from, and it was important because the crisis was very, very deep and hit hard for so many people. But we are really clear in saying that income supports, particularly CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit] was a very important stabilizer for so many people, and that’s really where we need to be focused on. There was a lot of individual generosity, the government stepped up. As we build back better, we need to ensure we’re focusing on policies that aren’t driven by charity, but are driven by our tax dollars, ensuring that people are able to not just survive but thrive over the long term.

As there’s now the potential of a second wave, both on the health front and economic front. That’s really where the focus, from a policy perspective, needs to be. What are we going to be doing over the next little while to ensure that people don’t end up completely drowned?


FPR: When we’re speaking about the policy interventions that we’ve seen so far, how do you think those have helped? What would you say some of the most significant ones have been?

CERB has been just life-changing for people, I would say. I think what’s really interesting about CERB is that it puts in stark relief how inadequate our other supports were pre-COVID. So for example, [CERB amount of] $500 a week is about two to three times more than most people would get on social assistance. If you look at EI [Employment Insurance] in terms of the amounts there, you’d have to be working full-time and making at least $21 an hour to make what you could on CERB [in EI payments]. I think that’s a really important a point to make: CERB has, I hope, set a new standard on setting a floor that people can’t fall below. And really, that’s where I hope the conversation will move toward – what’s an income floor that no one can fall below? Because there is absolutely no point in putting people into programs that beggar them and put their health into jeopardy. Let’s create programming that focuses on dignity, focuses on adequacy, focuses on simplicity, so that people can get on [those progams] and get the help they need.

No one wants to be poor. Poverty is not about a character flaw or mismanaging a budget. Poverty exists because people don’t have enough income to make the choices they need to make for themselves and their family. Governments need to play a protective role in that realm and provide strong, progressive policies that support people to bounce back in the economy because that’s where people want to be, if they choose.

And so, I hope there’s a new sensibility that we can build on post-COVID – or not post-COVID, because let’s be clear, we’re still in the midst of it. People are dying and there is a great amount of anxiety and stress out there, but there is an opportunity now to talk about inoculating ourselves from future problems by making sure that we build a more equitable Canada.


FPR: Specifically, where do you think the priorities should be to try and build those policies?

I think that there’s been a lot of talk about universal basic income and guaranteed income, and I’m a bit cautious about that approach. I think we do have some very important programs that have supported people to be healthier and to bounce back. If you look at the role of the Canada Child Benefit, it has significantly supported families to weather a lot of storms. The increases that have been made recently to the child benefit have been very important. It’s actually reduced severe food insecurity in families by one-third over the last few years.

So we do have examples that when you invest through existing programs, it has a very strong correlation to supporting people to push away from food insecurity. I think that the same could be said for seniors, and the role of Old Age Security, GIS [Guaranteed Income Supplement] and CPP [Canada Pension Plan]. That’s a suite of supports, and as soon as you turn 65, the data shows that food insecurity is reduced by 50 per cent because people have moved away from precarious employment and into more stable programs. So, I think we have infrastructure there on the income side that the feds should focus on.

Now, the group that gets missed in this is working-age adults. And there are a lot of working-age adults who are working poor. One of the areas that we’re pushing on is a refundable working-age-adult tax credit. We still have to figure out a form that’s going to take and what amount, but I think that that’s something we are really going to focus on: to create a protection for workers who are working.

And sure, we will also be talking about increasing minimum wages, which are more provincially focused, and making sure people have adequate paid sick days – and in fact, forget the minimum wage, let’s talk about living wages. But the feds can play a very important role in terms of the tax system and using refundable tax credits to support people and to bring them up. And in essence, all of those things – whether it’s the child benefit, whether it’s this new idea of a refundable tax credit for working-age adults, or whether it’s supporting seniors through OAS and GIS – those are things we can do through our tax system. And they create a floor where people can’t fall below.

Now, I think there’ll be deep political battles over what that floor might look like. The poverty line sits, for a single person, at around $24,000 pretty much anywhere in the country. It’s around $34,000 for two people, and for a family of four it’s like $48,000. So, I would hope that when we are trying to create this floor, we make sure it’s at least the poverty line, and I’d like to see it higher. I think we can do it through income policy, and then there’s a whole suite of social programs that make life more affordable that I think we should be focusing on. Pharmacare is one: 20 per cent of Canadians, of our fellow neighbours, don’t have any plans to deal with or get support around medication. And so there has been a lot of talk about a national pharmacare program. [Community Food Centres Canada] would like to see that implemented. The same goes for the National Housing Strategy. I think it’s good, but that housing benefit has been slow to flow and we need to get that housing benefit, which is portable, which supports people to get into housing, flowing a lot faster than it is.

“You can have the best intention in policy and supports, but if they’re not actually reaching those communities that are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and poverty, then what’s the use of having them?”

Similarly, we don’t come anywhere near the international benchmark for spending on childcare issues. So we spend about half a percent, relative to GDP, and we think it should be at one [per cent], which is the international standard. Having a very strong national childcare program is essential, particularly as we bounce back out of COVID. It’s necessary to get women into the workforce who want to be there and should be there. So, I think that combination of income supports and also social programs are obvious things that we need to be focusing on.

And then I would say we also have to focus on making sure that these programs are equitable. So for example, you can have the best intention in policy and supports, but if they’re not actually reaching those communities that are disproportionately affected by food insecurity and poverty, then what’s the use of having them? I’ve already talked about the disproportionate way in which Black communities and Indigenous communities face food insecurity. We’d really like to make sure that there is keen attention paid to ensure that all of these policies are implemented equitably. So one of the things that we are calling for is applying a racial equity impact assessment on all programs aimed at reducing food insecurity and reducing poverty. I think that’s a way to make sure that when they are implemented, they’re implemented fairly and everyone is benefiting from them. They’re very action-oriented, this kind of impact assessment, because they are linked to trying to develop mitigation strategies if people aren’t applying [to the programs]. If there are some things that aren’t being implemented properly, we can tweak them to make sure that the vast majority of Canadians are receiving them, regardless of race and gender. We also need monitoring. We need to set targets. We haven’t talked about data tracing. We need to have good data; we need to disaggregate that data along race, gender and other lines so that we are actually making sure we’re funnelling resources to those who need it most.

So look, there’s a whole suite of things we should be doing. And my sense is that the fight is on – these are things that aren’t just going to land without people mobilizing and talking very clearly about making sure that Canada does better at delivering on economic and social rights in this country. And as I described to start this conversation, we’ve been falling down in that regard for many, many years. I’m hopeful that this is an opportunity to have a new conversation. I really believe that culture pushes politics. And so perhaps there is a window here where people are thinking more clearly about their neighbours and viewing the world in a more solidaristic way – that we’re only as strong as our weakest link, and we really do need to be in this together. I found it quite hard to hear this idea of “we’re in it together” when in fact, we were so not in it together. Whether that was in terms of experiencing COVID or obviously the economy, we were not in it together and we remain divided. So I, along with lots of other individuals and organizations, am pushing for a more just recovery.


FPR: Community Food Centres had some research from last year finding that 81 per cent of people who experienced food insecurity also found a negative impact on their mental health. Has there been an interaction that you’ve noticed between COVID and food insecurity in terms of health or mental health?

I think we often think about food insecurity as simply a lack of food. But food insecurity is about a lack of hope, a lack of connection, poor physical and mental health, and people living essentially diminished and, frankly, shortened lives. We’re going to be bringing out a report called Beyond Hunger in the coming weeks to give a very clear picture of what it means to be food insecure. And it often means loneliness and isolation. People are talking like this: “I can’t have anyone over for dinner because I have nothing to serve. So, I’m going to be on my own.” Or, “I can’t take my kid to a birthday party because I can’t possibly afford a present so that my kid can go to that party.” Or, “I can’t put my kid in ballet because I can’t give them enough food to keep their energy up in order to participate.” And so people’s very real material deprivation – at the heart of food insecurity is people not having enough income – lead to a whole host of other really quite significant issues. Both on the physical side of things in terms of chronic disease – and all of the data is clear that people who are food insecure are disproportionally affected by diabetes, by heart disease, hypertension, a whole range of issues – and also quite significantly around issues related to mental health. So we are deeply concerned that COVID has just pushed people further into the margins. And I think we are going to be dealing with that for many years to come.

So we have pivoted as an organization. We are generally an organization that works from an upstream, preventative perspective, building community centres in low-income neighbourhoods where people can come together and meet their neighbours, eat well and start to identify what needs to change in their communities for their lives to be better. Well, during COVID we had to push toward a more emergency response, whether that’s takeaway meals or meal delivery or healthy food hampers or grocery gift cards. We’ve given out millions of grocery gift cards across the country to support people to go into grocery stores to buy the food that they need for their families. That’s, I think, a very dignified way to do it.

So we are now hoping, slowly but surely, that we can start to come back together so that people can be with each other. I miss my colleagues! I can’t tell you how difficult it’s been not to feed off the energy and see the people that I really respect and admire, and who give me a lot of hope. So you better believe people who are sitting in a small, crappy basement apartment, where those walls are pushing in on them, they need to get out and they need to see their neighbours. And so we’re slowly trying to get back to a place where people can safely come back into our community food centres and just interact with each other. Because we’re deeply concerned about the state of people’s mental health right now.


FPR: CFCC has distributed some of the funding that came through the federal government to assist people with food aid. What was that process like?

They reached out through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. They played a very important role and we had relationships with them and they respected our work. We were one of five other national organizations that received funding. We received about $11 million that we then got out [to low-income communities]. We continue to get it out, although we have also raised private money as well. That money was really critical, particularly in those early days when people were unsure where the economy was going and were really struggling to put food on the table. I think now we’re closing in on distributing $30 million to a thousand organizations across this country from coast to coast to coast, including 350 Indigenous organizations. And we’re just working on a funding round now that is focused on Black, Indigenous and people of colour organizations.

I’m extremely proud of my colleagues and our systems that have stepped up and played a significant role. But I want to underline that we’re also concerned that this emergency money might just start to further entrench charity [as a funding model], and we need to take the conversation out of that court and really focus on, what is post-CERB? Can we have an EI system that is easier to access and replaces more of your money when you’re on it? That’s a fundamentally important question. We know that there are lots of people, particularly low-wage workers, who pay into EI and don’t get any EI back when they need it. That’s unconscionable to me; it’s completely unacceptable. So we have a moment to reform EI and I think that’s an important conversation to be having right now. Those income supports and the policies I’ve talked about are critical – whether they are social programs or where they are working through the tax system to create refundable tax credits, and making sure that all of those programs are equitably applied so that those communities that are disproportionately affected, like Black communities and Indigenous communities, are getting the absolute best resources possible, just like everyone else.

So Community Food Centres Canada is going to be pushing from that perspective. We’re this unique hybrid of creating community spaces in low-income neighbourhoods that bring people together and build health and skills, but we also speak out all the time about the larger systemic issues that drive the vulnerability that exists in far too many of our neighbourhoods across this country.