by Wayne Roberts

The poor have always been with us, and they have always been hungry and sick. There’s nothing you can do about it.

This old-fashioned way of framing issues of poverty, hunger and disease as inevitable and unsolvable got a second lease on life over the last 20 years, thanks to none other than politicians who denounced governments for doing nothing about it.

The added lease on life for this hackneyed cliché about poverty and hunger is a textbook case of how policy issues get “framed.” From a framing perspective, food insecurity is a victim of FUBAR — framed up beyond all recognition.

Understanding this turns out to be the key to getting back on track to finding the right tools to do the job of solving hunger- and poverty-related problems.

Prove it, you say? Exactly the point of this article! More than that, it’s about Proof Positive. On top of that, it makes the business case for food security!

Lynne McIntyre and Catherine Mah kicked off a University of Toronto conference for international food insecurity researchers with a review of how food insecurity has been debated in the Canada’s House of Commons since the 1990s. Those were optimistic times, and Canada, like most governments around the world, signed onto a UN declaration of 1996 stating that all people at all time should be able to access adequate amounts of nutritious and safe food.

Lynne McIntyre, PhD (with mike) and Dr. Catherine Mah

When governments failed to reach that goal, opposition politicians of all stripes lashed out at the government of all stripes, accusing government leaders of sitting on their hands while unconscionable numbers of children and mothers were forced to resort to food banks as the only way to stave off hunger.

But the critics got hoisted on their own petard, thanks to a political system that locks critics into being naysayers, who think and speak in attack soundbites. Opposition mentality makes politicians forget that issues are rarely resolved by people with an opposition mentality. Instead of focusing on problems, we need what Stephen Covey has called an approach of “starving problems and feeding opportunity.”

According to experts on issue framing relied on by McIntyre and Mah’s research, the polarizing rhetoric used to shame government failure to solve problems only served to define the issue at hand as an “intractable policy problem.” It turns out that the people who issue denunciations are unwitting co-creators of what the public comes to see as an intractable policy problem. People on the outside, listening to all the ruckus, end up with a case of MEGO: “My Eyes are Glazing Over.”

Some people remove the issue from their bucket list of meaningful policy wishes. Others lose confidence in appeals to ethics, evidence, research or reason, and throw up their hands in despair, the framing experts warn: a pox on both your houses!

Sound a little eerily like Brexit and Trump victories, in the wake of decades of voter alienation resulting from too much attack politics rhetoric?

Getting to Yes, as the famous problem-solving manual had it, can be as simple as separating the problem from the people to be blamed and put on the defensive. Getting to No, by contrast, is a more traveled road, as simple as entwining people and the problem, all the better to focus on shaming the people, rather than the problem.

That’s what happened in the US after President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty of 1968 faltered, and Republican President Ronald Reagan declared 20 years later that the war only ended because poverty won.

Reagan’s declaration, according to one one knowledgeable review, poisoned the well against future government-funded anti-poverty efforts in the US ever since — even though it’s been proven that it produced some remarkable successes in education, health and crime reduction.

The specialists in Getting to No succeed by virtue of destroying The Power of Positive Thinking — a major lesson for any tempted to take the low road of negative attacks. Advocates beware; if the lack of response to 20 years of global warming scares hasn’t driven the point home for you, maybe the food security evidence will.

The same Reagan-inspired demoralization and disillusionment process happened in Canada. McIntyre and Mah are upset that some 25 years of Canadian parliamentary discussion on food insecurity did not send out any messages that framed food insecurity in affluent countries as avoidable, solvable and beneficial to all.

Negativity triumphed, despite the positive reality staring people in the face — the astonishing success of overcoming poverty and hunger among Canadian seniors.

Figuring out how that was done provides strong evidence, if not proof, that today’s food insecurity problems can be solved with similar dispatch.


In the 1950s, when I grew up, poverty, hunger and seniors were almost synonyms, and typical families, including my own, helped out grandma and grandpa by providing a free room in the basement.

Today, children and single moms, not seniors, are known for hunger.

The reason for that, according to a masterful study on old age benefits which McIntyre participated in, is that food insecurity rates for people in their 60s are cut in half, within a month after pension benefits automatically kick in at 65.

McIntyre and Mah insist on two points. First, we know how to solve food insecurity problems with no fuss, no muss. Who even knew that the rate of food insecurity of people in their 60s fell in half at age 65, strictly as a result of automatic old age benefits? It was so easy we never even noticed it, just like we never stop to think why it is that you push a switch and it makes the lights go on.

Second, we can do the right thing while saving taxpayers money that will otherwise inevitably go to very expensive medical care. The potent combination of reduced anxiety and increased nourishment works medical wonders, especially on chronic diseases that arise as a result of long-term disorders.

Old-age pensions are a key public health measure, said follow-up speaker Herb Emery, a health economist who also participated in the old age benefits study.

And that’s how the U of T conference went, for two solid days.

To my mind, the new twist, a major challenge to opposition party mentality, can be summarized in one word — PROOF.

Surprisingly, PROOF, the name of the conference, is not an acronym for a coalition or alliance. I expected it to stand for some group like Professors Researching Obviously Ontological Formulations.

PROOF is the medium, the method and the message of this work.

It’s advocacy based on digging up hard numbers that make irrefutable points that speak for themselves, with no need for added self-righteousness, partisanship or shaming. More than that, it’s advocacy that pinpoints solutions that solve problems in measurably cost-effective ways that no-one can complain about.

Anyone watching events in Europe or the US can appreciate the value of having policy debates in an atmosphere where proof matters more than opinion.

Likewise, anyone watching the needle moving the wrong way on Canadian child and family food insecurity and chronic illness can appreciate the value of advocacy that proves its point shamelessly — in terms of undeniable problem and solution identification.

It may seem arbitrary that the burden of proof falls on people who want to change government policies, not on those who want to keep things the way they are. But once we get over that, it’s time to put the graduate and post-doctoral students to work, earning their spurs as fact detectives.

Valarie Tarasuk, principal investigator, PROOF

That’s what U of T nutrition professor Valarie Tarasuk has masterminded for the last six years, when she got two million dollars from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, with marching orders to put up or shut up with her research on income support programs as the key tool to address food insecurity in Canada.


Tarasuk gives credit for the the PROOF formula to the late Cathleen Kneen, longtime leader of Food Secure Canada and various food and feminist networks. She joined Tarasuk’s research team for a meeting in 2012, doodled PROOF on a piece of paper, passed it around the table, and everyone had the aha moment that eventually led to a PROOF conference in November, 2016.

The U of T conference showcased the proof from six years’ research, as well as collaborations with food security experts from across Canada, the US, UK and Australia, many of whom presented at the conference.

Tarasuk’s review of Canadian statistics is painstakingly gathered from a variety of government surveys — true to the see-no-evil/speak-no-evil method of statistics gathering, food numbers are rarely brought together in one place.

We brought public information kept in the basement government vaults in Ottawa to public attention, Tarasuk said.

The big numbers have an impact all their own. Proof has a way of challenging the habits of people who prefer to turn blind eyes to problems.

“Just charting the information smashes people in the head with the big numbers,” Tarasuk said in her keynote. Four million Canadians experience food insecurity. One child in six is food insecure.

(The people who are rated in surveys as food insecure include three groupings. One, the marginally food insecure, worry all month that their budget won’t cover their tightly-budgeted needs. Another grouping, the moderately food insecure, skimp on quality to stretch their food budget, and eat less than they’d like — usually moms who silently go without so their kids won’t know the extent of the family problem. The third group, severely food insecure, skip meals, sometimes for entire days.

The sheer numbers prove there’s a problem on a scale that Canadians don’t imagine, and likely (I’m trying hard to convince myself) wouldn’t tolerate, if the reality behind the numbers ever sunk in.

The numbers shatter the image Canadians hold of themselves as looking after people properly so society doesn’t split between haves and have-nots. Didn’t we recently have an election, where the centerpiece of all major parties was a vow to protect the Canadian middle class, and where the needs of four million people who were food insecure were only mentioned in response to Food Secure Canada’s insistent campaign interventions? Do we not throw $31 billion worth of wasted food into landfill every year, without thinking that $31 billion would solve the even messier problem of food insecurity many times over?


As someone who has participated in several “welfare diets” over the years, a media “stunt” designed to prove that even food professionals can’t hack it on a welfare or minimum wage incomes, I find the numbers so shattering that I can’t imagine how people actually keep calm and carry on.

Nor can I understand the silence of the well-fed.

A recent study showed that 39 per cent of university students experience food insecurity, yet university administrators, professors and student leaders, thought of as stewards of this invaluable group of people, aren’t kicking up a storm?

Over a million of the food insecure work full time, yet their employers and fellow workers aren’t noticing?

One child in six in elementary schools isn’t getting enough to eat, and their teachers are not speaking out?

Imagine the blaring headlines if four million Canadians, or one child in six, were out of sorts for reasons unrelated to food insecurity. That’s what a new food security non-profit funded by Maple Leaf Foods is asking Canadians to conceive.

The newcomer to the food security causeis asking the dramatic equivalent of: What if four million people didn’t show up for work or school one day? What if four million people went through one winter week in unheated homes? What if four million people were stranded in airports for two nights because storms prevented flight take-offs?

In any of these kinds of cases, the demand for immediate government and public action would be unstoppable.

The food insecurity numbers, pure and simple, prove something has to be done — beyond occasionally embarrassing senior politicians about their heartlessness, and beyond donating to food banks, which amounts to denying we have a policy crisis in the area of food security that we don’t want to look at.

The good news, if I can be so trite, is that food insecurity, as the experts say, is very “policy-sensitive.” If governments fund income support programs, the problem gets fixed very quickly.

That’s what boosts to seniors’ pensions have proven. It’s what short-term spending, such as the boost in Newfoundland’s social assistance programs when Conservative Danny Williams was premier, also proved. In both cases, food insecurity rates were quickly cut in half. This is a problem politicians can safely and responsibly throw money at.

Food security is complicated, but food insecurity isn’t.

Solutions to food insecurity do not require intricate programs or surveillance or intervention. Administration and implementation costs are low.

That’s because food is a high priority need of all people. Shelter is the only need that has a higher priority in the budgets of people on low income. As soon as people on low income get more money, they invariably spend all or most of it on food. No-one needs to tell them “why don’t you go buy some good food with this extra money.”

That’s why governments spent nothing telling seniors spend their new pension benefits on food. Deep human instincts allowed seniors to figure that out all by themselves.


When poor people spend more on food, fact sheets compiled by PROOF reveal, the government reaps massive savings from reduced use of a very costly universal health care system, which includes examination by family docs, tests and treatment by medical specialists, prescription medications, emergency hospital visits, and hospital stays.

For people on low income, food is primary disease prevention. When they aren’t anxious all month about getting enough to eat, and when they can afford adequate nutrient-rich foods, costs for their medical care sink.

send the check in the mail; it works every time

One PROOF factsheet on the health impact of food insecurity costs shows the average food secure adult uses $1608 worth of health service a year, while the average marginally food insecure adult uses $2161 worth of services, the average moderately food insecure adult uses $2806 worth of services, and the average severely food insecure adult uses $3930 worth of healthcare services.

Indeed, depending on how the medical stats are sliced, diced and framed — to reveal the name of diseases (heart disease, for example) or the cause of causes of diseases— food insecurity and its inequities likely rank with obesity and tobacco as a leading cause of causes behind escalating healthcare costs.

The hidden costs of food insecurity get worse.

Most of the additional medical usage comes from chronic diseases, another PROOF chart on the same factsheet shows. Rates of care for anxiety disorders, migraines, hypertension, bowel disorders, heart disease, diabetes, back problems, and asthma are all off the charts for people experiencing food insecurity.

One point to draw attention to is that all these afflictions — never mind the growling tummy — make it harder for people to study, compete for a demanding job, hold down a second job, engage in fulfilling relationships, and find their way to climb out of poverty.

Specific PROOF charts are backed up by links to scores of academic studies confirming the trend PROOF researchers discovered.

The figures and studies document the irrationality of pretending to save money through low minimum wages and low social assistance payouts. Keeping people on such low incomes that they can’t afford proper nutrition not only costs more in any given year than it would cost to provide people with proper nutrition. It also traps them in lifelong futures on low income.

The “safety net” is supposed to function as a trampoline, helping people bounce back from adversity — helping a single mom stay at home with the kids when they’re young, then returning to a good job when the kids are old enough to go to school. Instead the safety net entraps people in a downward spiral that leads to disabilities that undermine individual resilience.

100% proof

Do the math, as the saying goes, and it becomes indisputable that funding food security is akin to a bluechip investment that yields year-on-year returns. By contrast, shortchanging people on low income is a disinvestment that gets more expensive every year.


The evidence and arguments marshaled by conference organizers are compelling, as well as pivotal to the way evidence on food-related issues can be advocated over the next period.

But I do have one gripe.

I was probably the only person at the conference who heard Valerie Tarasuk refer, in her opening remarks at the conference, to the “impotent community response” to the past 20 years of rising food insecurity.

Tarasuk has fought the good fight to bring income support to the fore of food security policy for a long time. She has argued that food banks and charity are the wrong way to go. For a long time, her writings made the same case against community kitchens and community gardens designed to support people facing food insecurity.

I spent most of my food career promoting such community-based programs, which is why my ears picked up at a phrase few others heard.

As one of many community program organizers, I made no bones that income was fundamental to the solution of food insecurity, but argued that it was also necessary to go beyond what is called “nutritionism” — the doctrine that food’s human impact is entirely physiological.

All people, and especially people who have been marginalized and impoverished, need personal and social support and empowerment — needs that are also addressed through food via such projects as community gardens and community kitchens.

I believe the hard and fast lines between the two schools of thought were not valid in the past, and are not justifiable today, when we are making such headway on income issues, thanks in large part to the Tarasuks of the world.

There is a simple income-centred solution to universal food access, which has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt. But complex solutions to inequality and empowerment, especially for members of marginalized groups, are not automatically solved by income-based programs.

Both groups need to be involved in the PROOF conferences of the future.

When the federal government gets around to presenting its food policy in 2018, it will need to establish food security as a foundation stone of that policy.

But a crucial cornerstone of that policy must be recognition of the multi-functionality of food — its ability to solve far more than nutrition and nutrition-based health problems. One function of food is to build the power of self and of marginalized groups.

I would hope that the government will also have the generosity of spirit to name at least one clause of its 2018 food policy in memory of Cathleen Kneen, who worked with Valerie Tarasuk and her colleagues to put us all on a proven track to success.

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