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Food Insecurity and Poverty in Canada – A Letter from The Mississauga Food Bank and Food Banks Canada to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

By Jenna Cura
January 18, 2023
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Letter sent on January 17, 2023.

(TW: suicide)

Dear Prime Minister,

In your recent year-end interview with Global News’ Dawna Friesen, you were shown a clip from an interview with Meghan Nicholls, CEO of The Mississauga Food Bank, discussing the increase in food bank clients expressing suicidal ideation, including asking about MAiD.

As you have surely been made aware, food bank use in Canada is higher than ever. In March of 2022, food bank usage reached nearly 1.5 million visits, representing a 35% increase from pre-pandemic levels.

The Mississauga Food Bank has built real and lasting relationships with the most vulnerable of these clients – those with disabilities or who are otherwise homebound. This has allowed people to open up with food bank staff about the raw emotion of the reality they are dealing with and how death can feel like the only way out. We know this is a tough message to hear, but we can’t underestimate the toll that poverty takes on anyone’s mental, emotional, and physical health.

This strengthens the resolve for the work we do, just as you said it does for you. Thank you for expressing your passion for assisting Canadians living in poverty, and for the targeted supports you have instituted as a short-term response to the inflation crisis. Beyond that, we want to emphasize that the crisis we are seeing exists outside of the pressures of inflation. Suicidal ideation among our clients, especially those with disabilities or who are otherwise homebound, is not new to us.

With our shared goal to combat poverty, we would like to bring Food Banks Canada’s policy recommendations to your immediate attention. Having both a local and national lens represented in this response, we are certain these are the actions that will make a long-term impact on the longstanding fissures in our social safety net. It is crucial that in addition to the temporary solutions you have put forward to address recent inflationary issues, your efforts also be focused on the long-term solutions needed to reduce systemic poverty.

Following this letter is a list of actionable policy recommendations in four areas of focus:

● A Minimum Income Floor
● Affordable Housing
● Low-Income Workers
● Northern and Remote Food Insecurity

Backed by Food Banks Canada’s research, these will drive meaningful action to address poverty and low incomes – the root causes of food bank use.

Moving forward, we would like your office’s support and guidance to work with the relevant ministries on advancing and developing the below policy recommendations. We would greatly appreciate your office connecting with our government relations team to move ahead on these important files.

The most important takeaway from this letter is this: we are partners in your efforts to end poverty. We are here to provide resources and support as you follow through on your commitments.

We look forward to tackling poverty with you and making life for Canadians more livable as we work towards a shared vision where no one goes hungry.

Yours Sincerely,

Meghan Nicholls
Chief Executive Officer, The Mississauga Food Bank

Kirstin Beardsley
Chief Executive Officer, Food Banks Canada

Food Banks Canada Federal Policy Recommendations

A Minimum Income Floor – Planks are in Place but Large Cracks Remain

1. Swiftly introduce the Canada Disability Benefit with assurance that no clawbacks will come from provincial governments and that harmony exists between provincial assistance levels and the federal program to bring all persons with a disability up to, or above the MBM.

● Amend the MBM for persons with a disability to reflect the realities of a higher cost of living
for those facing long-term disability.

2. Fund and develop, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, multiple Minimum Income Floor pilot projects of various types across the country in various provinces and territories (in both rural and urban communities).

● Within at least one pilot, consider a model based on the reformatting of the Canada Workers
Benefit, where recipients do not need to have a base income to receive a minimum allotment.
● Collect and analyze data from these pilot projects over multiple years to determine the type
of Minimum Income Floor that is best suited to Canada’s needs and accounts for Canada’s
regional differences.

3. In the short term, allow all low-income households to have access to the non-cash benefits that are currently only available to those on social assistance (e.g., childcare subsidies, affordable housing supplements, drug and dental insurance).

4. Make single, low-income adults a priority consideration in all future poverty reduction measures, including an expanded and modernized EI, to ensure that this vulnerable population is no longer left behind.

5. Develop new mental health measures as part of future health accords with the provinces and territories that include a specific focus on the needs of single, working-age adults.

6. Ensure all federal benefits are indexed to inflation and that agreements with provincial governments explicitly forbid clawbacks of provincial social supports for new federal benefit programs.

Affordable Housing – A Persistent Problem that Requires Urgent Solutions

1. Immediately implement a national rent assist program based on an expanded version of the Canada Housing Benefit and include the development of an on-reserve rent assist program.

2. Explore community-targeted funding for the acquisition of affordable housing. In other words, providing capital funding (loans and grants) to non-profits so they may purchase and provide rental properties at or below the median market rent.

3. Introduce new investments and address an important omission of the National Housing Strategy, to

build supportive housing for people with mental and physical health disabilities, particularly for low-income and marginalized populations.

● Include a specific stream for seasonal workers who may work as few as 12 to 16 weeks a

Low-Income Workers – When a Job Still isn’t Enough

1. Develop a new program within EI that specifically supports older workers (aged 45–65) who lose employment at a later age and who may need specific training and education programs catered to their needs to help them re-enter the modern workforce.

2. Permanently broaden the EI qualifying definition of “employment” to include self-employed and precarious work.

3. Review and reduce the number of qualifying “hours of employment” needed (currently between 420 and 700 hours of insurable employment) to better reflect the nature of modern jobs and working situations.
● Include a specific stream for seasonal workers who may work as few as 12 to 16 weeks a year.

4. Immediately expand the Working-While-on-Claim (WWC) provisions in EI to allow workers to retain more of their income from temporary/part-time work while on EI without losing benefits or having their income clawed back.

5. Extend the maximum duration of EI benefits beyond 45 weeks, to 52 weeks, followed by a staggered reduction in cash benefits while retaining access to non-cash EI supports (such as training and education) so that people are not forced into our broken and grossly inadequate provincial social
assistance system once their EI benefits run out.

6. Work with provinces to reduce the clawbacks and improve harmony between social assistance and EI.

7. Expand EI sickness benefits beyond 15 weeks to keep people off provincial disability programs, which provide meagre supports and are very difficult to climb out of.

8. To better support low-wage workers currently employed:
● Improve the Canada Workers Benefit (CWB) by increasing the maximum payout, especially for those earning below the poverty line.
● Introduce government incentives to encourage businesses to pay living wages to all employees.

Northern and Remote Food Insecurity – Forging a Path Toward Brighter Days

1. Immediately start working toward a Minimum Income Floor (see recommendation #2 in the Minimum Income Floor section above) and away from the current broken social assistance system that keeps far too many northern Canadians in a cycle of poverty and food insecurity.

2. In collaboration with Indigenous communities and organizations, initiate a comprehensive review of Nutrition North Canada to determine why the program is only minimally achieving its objectives of reducing the cost of food in the North.

3. Working in partnership with local groups, create a Canada-wide Northern Development and Revitalization Plan that is focused on the research and development of regional programs that aim to train workers and grow commerce in strategic economic sectors like tourism, natural resources, and local/regional business.

4. Develop funding for a national program of community-based representatives whose focus is on connecting their communities to funds and resources that are available to northern communities, yet too often go unused for lack of awareness. These representatives will provide an opportunity for knowledge sharing across communities from coast to coast to coast.

5. Develop incentives and strategies to keep capital in the North and work to reduce temporary workers coming into communities for work and leaving without contributing to the local economies.

6. Expand access to the Internet for all communities above the 50th parallel so that communities may capitalize on the growing remote workforce.

● Offer additional training for remote work skills and funding for the procurement of work-from-home supplies.

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