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Food security, health care, and responsibility

Guest contributor Angela

As a dietitian and someone with a keen interest in human rights advocacy, food security is an important topic to me. It is not only that I believe that everyone should have access to affordable food. That's only part it. I believe that everyone should have access to food that is also safe, nutritious, and personally acceptable. "Acceptable" includes taste preference, moral issues, and ethical ones. By this definition, someone who receives food they dislike from a foodbank is not food secure. Nor is a vegetarian whose accessible food involves mainly meat products, or a person of Jewish faith who has free access to pork and not much else.

When it comes to food insecurity, particularly at-risk local populations include those living in the downtown Eastside of Vancouver (due to a number of demographics associated with those living in the area), those on social assistance (including disability benefits), senior citizens on fixed incomes, or single parents working minimum wage jobs.

A recent post on this blog mentions that organic food is more expensive than convetional products. This issue is hotly debated within the scope of this article and in the feedback from readers. I firmly believe, however, that organic food, on average, does cost more. This isn't to say that there aren't conventional grocery stores that charge a fortune, or some well-priced organic markets. But, arguing that everyone can get good prices for organic food assumes that everyone has the ability to seek out those markets and the time and transportation to get there.

The article talks about subsidies that conventional farmers get which allows their prices to be lower. Many readers replied that food is already cheap, that farmers don't get paid well, and that we should
all be willing to pay more for food in general. While I agree that farmers should make a decent wage, try telling our food insecure people mentioned above with $50 per month for food from their social assistance cheques that nutritious groceries should cost more. Or that if only they would travel 2 hours on transit to their nearest organic farm, after they finish their 12-hour shift working for minimum wage, that they would find inexpensive organic groceries. Or that if the masses would only "suck it up" and pay more now, they would save money on organic produce in the long run as prices come down. I also saw one person argue that changing spending priorities would ensure that people could afford organic food. While this might occasionally be the case, I am a bit overwhelmed at the judgmental attitude this person professes to have with regard to how low-income families spend their money.

On another note, if we are going to examine spending, health care dollars are a frequently mentioned subject in this country. I can personally attest to hospitals being short of beds, short of staff, and overcrowded. I cynically smirk whenever the "overcapacity protocol" is announced over the intercom. Personally, I think it would be more efficient to have a permanent overcapcity protocol and announce when there are actually beds for everyone.

There's no doubt that there are many factors leading to increased health care spending. We are living longer and getting sicker. Rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, mental illness, HIV, etc, etc, etc are all increasing. (Let it be known that I don't believe that obesity is a health risk, but rather, eating poorly and not exercising are health risks. That's another blog entirely.)

Similarly, there are many factors leading to our health decline. We cannot rule out environmental factors. I haven't done an extensive literature search recently on the health effects of pesticides. A few years ago, literature was inconclusive on this topic. The only thing we knew for sure was that those whose job it was to spray pesticides had higher rates of cancer. I personally don't think it's a far reach to suspect that pesiticides aren't doing us any good in terms of health over the long term. I can't imagine that our health would do anything but benefit if we all had access to organic produce and fresh air and water that wasn't contaminated with pesticides. Research is still inadequate on this topic. We've done so much to destroy our environment and health that to separate the effect of pesticides from all other factors is no easy feat.

Now is the part where I'm supposed to offer some brilliant solutions to be had. Unfortunately, I don't have a degree in economics. I have no idea whether changing farming subsidies to organic farmers would be useful economically as well as for individuals. I can't propose a national budget that would allow us to perfectly balance health care costs, education costs, environmental changes, and social assistance that allows people to live with dignity and food security. How feasible is it economically to suddenly ban trans fat? Or to tax "junk food"? What do we define as "junk food" while still allowing
people to be food secure? How do we maintain personal responsibility and free will in letting people make decisions about their own health care, while still keeping national health care costs as low as they can be?

What I do advocate for is dialogue. Among politicians, economists, environmentalists, health care providers, and any other interested individuals and stakeholders. I believe that there is more research to be done, and better balance to be had. If only we could agree on a common goal and start some conversation. Much easier said than done.

Angela (Vancouver)