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Hey Canada, Why Don't You Have Food Stamps?

I'm a Canadian ex-pat living the US, and have noticed something strange: My homeland is missing any formal nutrition assistance programs at the federal or provincial level—it doesn’t even have a plan to feed kids at school, regardless of income.
Photo by Paul Sableman

It is with great regret that I put a dent in the love-accented-with-mockery relationship between America and Canada, but every once in a while, I feel the need to do so in the name of the truth. It's my journalistic/Canadian duty.

For as long as I've lived in the US, I've heard Americans gleefully laud my home country for its cheap education, socialized healthcare, and free prescription drug program. You guys threaten to move north every time the political landscape in the great USA skews a bit right (clearly, your understanding of immigration law is somewhat lacking). Yet it is a little-known, and highly ironic, fact that Canada is missing any formal nutrition assistance programs at the federal or provincial level. Where America has federally-funded programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and school lunch programs, Canada has…nothing. Plus, we've got Stephen Harper, who is basically our version of George Bush, Jr., but with no expiration date.


"I'm not entirely sure why we don't have nutrition assistance," Amanda Sheedy, the program director at Food Secure Canada, admitted when I asked her. "It continues to shock me that Canada is one of the only countries in the industrialized world that doesn't support school meals, for example."

Yes, that's right: the beacon of North American liberalism doesn't even have a plan to feed kids at school, regardless of income. Still with me?

Sheedy herself has an intimate understanding of the Canadian government's generosity. When she arrived in Vancouver as a young, unemployed college grad, she could have easily ended up homeless. Luckily, she qualified for enough money from British Columbia's government to get herself on her feet. That provincial aid is part of Canada's generous safety net of programs known as social assistance, often delivered in the form of checks direct-deposited to those in need. I know there are more than a few SNAP recipients here in America who would kill for some free money—but would they do so at the expense of government-subsidized food? With programs like EBT at farmers markets that double SNAP's value, recipients are often stretching their—albeit—horribly limited allotment too thin.

On the flip-side, the Canadian government's decision to give money instead of food can feel like a more dignified way of helping those in need. But the data (as data often goes) is a bit more depressing. According to a recent report funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 70 percent of people who rely on social assistance as their main form of income are food insecure. Canada's social services also haven't increased proportionally to the cost of living. Much like in the US, when faced with rising rent and utilities, food is often the first thing to go.


Canadian researchers (perhaps because of that stereotypical kindness so often ascribed to northerners?) are more generous in their definition of food insecurity than Americans tend to be: in the CIHR study, "food insecurity" is an umbrella term covering anything from worrying about running out of food to skipping meals because of lack of funds. The USDA's definition is narrower: "consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year."

Granted, everything in America is bigger (except it's land mass), and its hunger issues are no exception: 17.6 million American households were food insecure in 2012, compared to just 1.7 million Canadian households. For perspective, that's 6.8 percent of Canadians, and 14.5 percent of Americans—the US rate is more than double Canada's. You know how the song goes: more people, more problems. Or something like that.

"The US [food] program is hardly a role model, is it?" scoffs Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, one of the CIHR study's lead researchers and a nutrition professor at the University of Toronto.

When I asked her if she thought Canada could benefit from food stamps, or WIC, or universally-mandated school lunches, she was hardly optimistic. "The problem is that by the time someone is at a stage to not be able to afford food, it's not just food that they're missing. They can't afford clothing, their housing might be compromised, they're under incredible levels of stress…these are all things negatively impacting someone's health," Tarasuk said. "At that point, it's too late."


Still, there's four million people going hungry in Canada who are leaning heavily on privately-supported food banks, including a significant portion of employed adults, an oxymoron Americans are all-too-familiar with. According to Food Banks Canada, their organizations have seen a 23 percent increase in clients since 2008, the year the recession hit Canada. More food banks are opening their doors every year, but they're struggling to meet a need that's clearly outpacing them.

"People think Canada's government is involved in food banks — they're not," says Sheedy. "They rely on people like you and I. There's no federal money. There's no provincial money."

Worse, though, is that there's been zero national conversation from Canada's leadership about how to abate food insecurity. At least you Americans get worked up about stuff! Though Prime Minister Harper has offered up food security projects to several Latin American and African countries, he refuses to acknowledge a nearly 50 percent rate of food insecurity in Nunavut, one of Canada's northernmost territories. The Canadian government also has no committees or agencies focused on hunger relief, nutrition assistance, or combating poverty.

"I think it's absolutely ludicrous that we have food insecurity in Canada," Sheedy told me. "If we can't figure this out, who can?"

An American could very well say the same about America.