Voting for food security: what is a basic income floor?

From listening to numerous debates and discussions on living wages and from creating budgets based on various incomes, I can absolutely appreciate how difficult it would be to survive on a minimum wage income. Especially as a parent with dependents.

Typically, it isn’t just that you make minimum wage. You may not get enough hours to meet full-time requirements with one employer, so you need to work a few jobs to make enough money. You probably work more hours than you would if you had one full-time job. You may not be able to spend much time at home because you’re working. You have difficulty making ends meet because there are so many costs in life: shelter, clothing, food, your kids’ needs, aging parent’s needs, internet, phone, transportation. Life is complicated and complex, and having to struggle and constantly worry about meeting absolutely basic needs just makes everything more challenging.

As part of Food Secure Canada’s EatThinkVote campaign (Canada’s next federal election is October 19, 2015), they are pushing for a Canada with zero hunger. Their policy proposal to achieve this is to establish a national basic income. In short, this means that anyone falling below a certain income (designated poverty line) would be topped up to the basic income. The idea is that this would positively impact the mental and physical health of those who would have otherwise fallen below the poverty line.

I had never heard of the concept of the basic income floor before and was even more surprised to read that an experiment with a guaranteed annual income had been done from 1974-1979 in Dauphin, Manitoba. That’s almost 40 years ago! It was called MINCOME (a smash-up of “minimum income”). Everyone in the small town was eligible to participate in the experiment; benefits were dependent on factors such as family size and whether there were other income sources. Unfortunately, there was no report produced at the end of this field experiment. There have been subsequent analyses by universities and others that try to assess the costs and benefits of this experiment. The greatest benefit seemed to be for those who were low income but did not qualify for other established social security schemes and for those who were self-employed with no guarantee of income from year to year (agricultural base).

I think this is such an interesting concept but there would be lots of details to be worked out, like what exactly would the designated poverty line be? Would it be indexed to the cost of living in different areas of the country? What would be the most effective way of rolling out this type of policy?

Voting for food security: giving kids access to healthy nutritious food

Looking back on my life so far, I can point to a few pivotal moments that have really affected how my life has turned out. As the Canadian federal election really gets going (towards an election date of October 19, 2015), I am reminded of the importance of food security…and the year I started to really explore the concept of food security is one of those pivotal moments of my life.

Rewind to that pivotal week

I became involved with a community service learning program at my university, where we learned about and discussed issues that impact a specific community while volunteering with an organization within that community. During Reading Week in my second year of university, 30 students came together from across many academic disciplines to volunteer in spaces like an elementary school, a women’s transition house and an HIV/AIDS health program. Each morning, all of the university students would come together and have an incredibly thought-provoking discussion led by a community leader or faculty member. I don’t think remember specifically discussing food security during those 4 days together, but we talked a lot about issues that impact marginalized communities.

My participation in that 4.5 day project has really shaped my view of the world. It was the first time that I really remember being pushed to think in a different way. I almost feel like most of the learning that I had ever done in school up until that point was very passive; you go to school, you learn about set topics, you hang out with friends (usually people somewhat like you socioeconomically speaking) and you regurgitate content (tests, exams, projects, assignments). That week, I was exposed to a number of issues that I had known about in a cursory manner but had never discussed in such depth:

  • what does it mean to be marginalized (I actually don’t know if I even knew that word existed prior to)?
  • what do marginalized women face and how can a community support them?
  • what special issues do children who grow up in marginalized communities face?

Going through that project, I don’t think I even understood how much of an impact it would have on me. Only now, looking back, can I see the trajectory that it pushed me on. Anyways, my continued involvement with the community service learning program over a few years really educated me on appreciating each person’s life experience. You never really know what another person is going through or has gone through and how that impacts their interaction with the world. Which brings me to food security.

Fast forward to voting for food security

Food security is having access to a sufficient amount of safe and nutritious food.

A basic element that every child needs to survive is food. Without food, they cannot meet their potential. Imagine having a growling stomach all day long, every day. Your stomach could be growling for many reasons; maybe your caregivers can’t afford much food or maybe you don’t have regular access to nutritious food. I bet you’d feel tired and your main focus would be on finding something to eat. Imagine going to school in that state, every single day. Being told to sit in your seat, finish your assignment, write that test, run a few laps, don’t fall asleep…all while your stomach growls. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Every child should have access to enough safe and nutritious food so that they can focus on learning and growing and playing instead of on their empty stomach.

Nobody can deny that children are the future. Just biologically, this is a fact. Children will grow to be the adults of tomorrow and the adults of today will eventually die. Investing in the children of today is incredibly important. And it is truly the biggest and best investment that we can make. How these children feel, think, perceive the world will impact what our world will look like in 10, 20, 40 years. This is why we need a universal healthy national school food program for children.

How would a national school food program impact our today and our future?

Show that we, as Canada, truly value and recognize the important that food plays in our communities and in our future as a country. Encourage the adoption of a food policy that gives kids healthy and nutritious food at school. A national school food program would shape our future in a few ways:

  • immediate impact: children would have access safe nutritious food so that they can focus on learning and playing.
  • intermediate impact: children would explore what ‘healthy eating’ truly means, understand the role that food plays in their own culture as well as in society by growing a school garden, learning about food systems locally and globally, discussing issues related to food security and learning to prepare delicious culturally appropriate meals.
  • long-term impact: children would grow into adults who think critically about the world around them and can support and sustain themselves (better able to focus at school may mean more likely to succeed in society, know how to grow and cook healthy foods, understand the relationship between themselves, food and the environment). They may also be healthier, reducing negative impacts on our health care system.

You can read more about this on Food Secure Canada’s page on a national healthy school food program. This year, ask your local candidates what they think about giving kids access to healthy food and EatThinkVote.

Allergen labelling part of proposed food labelling changes in Canada

Health Canada is requesting feedback from Canadians on proposed labelling changes until August 27, 2015. Amongst the numerous proposed changes, they want to change the formatting of ingredient lists so that each ingredient is separated by a bullet point, black font is used against a white or neutral background and “Make the ingredient list and information on allergens easier to find and read.” These are basically changes to establish a more common look and feel to ingredient lists.

You can read about the label changes that impact allergen listings but the big differences on the allergen front are:

  • Food colours will be represented by their common name in the ingredient list. This would eliminate the use of a generic term such as “colour”.
  • “Contains” statements that list allergens used in the product must appear right after the main ingredient list. Allergens in the product will continue to be required on the label in a “Contains” statement.
  • “May Contain” statements that indicate potential cross contamination with allergens must also appear right after the main ingredient list and “Contains” statements, in the same size font as the rest of the information.

One ingredient in Health Canada’s illustration/example of the new label format is “Spices”, which continues to be vague and a possible source of contention for those who have food allergies. This is not addressed in the proposed changes.

If these changes to the Regulations are accepted, Health Canada is proposing a 5 year transition period before the new requirements come into force. Products sold by those who make them (think craft shows, farmers’ markets) would continue to be exempt from the requirements. Grocery retailers who use “retail or scale labels” would also be exempt.

The proposed changes would make sure that ingredients are all listed together in a legible manner on the label of packaged foods. Anything to make reading and interpreting labels easier is certainly welcomed by me but I’m thinking it would be helpful to require listing the specific spices in addition to colours?

Anyways, go make your voice heard!

Food allergies in emergencies

I’ve been thinking about this quite often lately. What do people with multiple food allergies do in an emergency? Obviously, there are many magnitudes of “emergency” (the natural disasters, being stranded somewhere, otherwise unexpected events) but no matter how small or great, they present a particular challenge for those with allergies. Dealing with multiple allergens, particularly ubiquitous ingredients such as dairy, egg and wheat, it’s not like you can just pop into a store or a gas station and expect to find any safe food. And then imagine if it’s a mass emergency that impacts lots of people…the shelves at stores would likely already be slim pickings….

Now more than ever, we have tried to have a decent amount of dry goods in our pantry for those just-in-case moments. Canned fish, rice cakes, Tetrapak hemp milk, sunbutter, some safe snacks that we’ve found. My personality already sets me up to do worst-case scenario analyses and honestly, the natural disaster-type scenario makes me extra anxious from the food perspective.

Setting aside those “emergency” scenarios that we typically think of, I started to think of those life changes that can impact food availability. Things like loss of income, ill turn in health, other situations of poverty. I read about the Food Equality Initiative just by chance through a social networking site. This is an organization based in Kansas that runs a gluten-free and allergy-friendly food pantry. Wow, what an amazing concept. I contacted the Ottawa Food Bank to ask how they work with clients who have allergies. They informed me that their community partners – the organizations who actually hand out the food items – work with clients to determine what foods they can or cannot eat. They also told me that some partners may keep allergy-friendly foods stored separately for clients who self-identify as requiring them. I think about what a challenge it can be walking through the grocery store to find safe foods so I wonder what the experience is actually like, trying to get safe foods from a more limited selection (like that available from the food bank).

Ubiquity of milk ingredients

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

I read labels when I shop. What are the ingredients? Where is it from? What is the nutritional information? However, I’m realizing that I hadn’t been reading labels on every single food product that I was purchasing.

My go-to chip is the Kettle brand chip and during one of my recent grocery shopping trips, I absent mindedly picked up a bag of sweet onion-flavoured chips…and yes, I had a chip craving one day and went to grab a handful of these chips, only to read the label at that point (did I mention I had an immediate craving!) and find milk ingredients! Reluctantly, I put the bag back in the pantry, unopened.

The more I scrutinize food products, the more I realize just how ubiquitous milk ingredients are. There are the obvious dairy products: the cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams. Then, there are the somewhat obvious milk-y products: many popular chocolates, sherbets, cheesy crackers, etc. But the chips!?

Luckily, products now have a clear statement when they contain any of the top food allergens (soy, milk, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, egg, sulphites, mustard) – see Health Canada’s page outlining 2012 changes to allergen labelling requirements – and many have precautionary statements laying out possibility of inadvertent contamination with common allergens. Had I read the label on the chip bag, I would’ve easily seen “milk ingredients” among the list of ingredients but I didn’t realize that seasonings are another possible source of milk.

Milk. It’s in so much of the packaged foods that we consume and to an extent that I am only now realizing.

Straight dairy alternatives…so far

Ever since finding out that our baby has food allergies, as a breastfeeding mom, I have been working to cut out his allergens from my diet. It’s quite the educational experience for me as I delve into the world of cooking without dairy, eggs, and nuts.

I grew up drinking a lot of milk. I’ve heard many a complaint from friends that skim milk just tastes like water but that is exactly why I loved it: water with calcium. Oh so refreshing! I would have it with my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then, in my twenties, I started to suspect that I was a little bit lactose intolerant and decided to stop drinking milk. However, I could not stop did not want to stop eating dairy products such as ice cream (craziness to cut that out!), yogurt and cheese. I love these things, after all.

Fast forward to today, where I have a stronger reason to cut dairy out of my life: my baby is allergic to it. Pause. My baby is allergic to dairy. Scary.

Liquid milk was fairly easy to phase out of my life. Ice cream, yogurt, and cheese, not so much. In times of weakness I could foresee myself caving to having just that one lick of ice cream or yogurt or a cube of cheese. Therefore, I put myself on a search for feasible alternatives, not with the mindset that these new options would have to taste like their dairy counterparts (that would be a good way to set myself up for disaster) but that could offer me a real tasty alternative. After all, why would or should I need something to taste just like dairy-cheese or dairy-yogurt when it’s not made from dairy?? It’s like trying to find a brown rice that tastes just like a white rice: they’re just not the same!

So far, I’ve tried:

  • Luna & Larry’s Coconut Bliss ice cream: absolutely delicious. I’ve never been a fan of coconut but I really enjoy this ice cream and *gasp* I actually find it much more satisfying than dairy ice creams. It’s creamy and comes in a variety of delicious flavours.
  • Good Karma Rice Divine ice cream: reminds me of the flavour of Japanese mochi ice cream (which I love)…but has a gritty mouth feel that I did not enjoy.
  • So Delicious yogurt: cultured coconut milk. More palatable than a soy yogurt that I tried.
  • Soy yogurt (forgot the brand): had one spoonful and did not want to eat any more. Not the right product for me.

I haven’t ventured into the world of non-dairy cheese yet, but am pretty happy to have found a solid ice cream. A few teaspoons full a day keeps me pretty happy!

No tip restos

Earlier this month, a restaurant that will be opening in British Columbia gained a lot of media attention by having no tips, offset by increased menu prices and wages for the staff. Servers and cooks will receive more comparable wages instead of the former getting much more due to tips, and for those restaurants who practice tip-pooling, the amount of money each staff member will make becomes much more transparent.

I remember my time living in Japan and how easy it was to become accustomed to not leaving a tip at a restaurant. The general expectation is courteous service and that is how you keep bringing customers into your restaurant, instead of what, to me, feels like an obligation here to leave at least a 10% tip, even for less than courteous service.

A tip is like a little extra thank you to acknowledge above-and-beyond service (or with today’s lowered expectations, just GOOD service). It shouldn’t be expected by anyone. And it certainly shouldn’t become a post-dinner hassle; have you ever had a server tell you that you should be tipping more!? Ridiculous.

I hope that this no-tip restaurant concept catches on in Canada as it has started to do in the United States. I wouldn’t want restaurant fare to become out of the reach, price-wise, for people as we essentially subsidize the restaurant in lieu of tips but at least you are fully aware, walking into a place (or browsing the menu online), of what you will be paying. And if the service is less than par, you can write a restaurant review on sites like yelp or urbanspoon and vow never to return, but you won’t feel obligated to leave a tip. And a clearer, perhaps more egalitarian wage structure for restaurant staff couldn’t hurt.

Courtesy Seats

At the front of the public buses here in Ottawa and in many cities, there is an area of seating designated as courtesy, co-operative, or priority seating. The idea is that if someone who cannot stand in a moving vehicle boards the bus, they have a place near the door to take a seat. Typically, the area is marked with decals on the windows above the designated seats and the decals have illustrations that vary, city-to-city, but can represent wheelchairs, pregnant women, people with strollers, and people with mobility aids.

I’ve always avoided sitting in this area because I’m able-bodied and can easily move towards the back of the bus, even while the vehicle is moving. However, I’ve made an observation that really irks me…and apparently it irks a lot of other people too!

Now, I’m not one to judge whether someone is able-bodied or not. There are invisible issues that some people face and I’m very cognizant of this. For this reason, I won’t ask anyone in particular to move out of their seat. I expect that etiquette will take care of this. BUT I have noticed so many people acting oblivious to the older gentleman who boards the bus with his walker or the toddler who comes on with their guardian. I’ve seen people sitting in the designated area who are engrossed by their phone and never look up, people who all of a sudden become super occupied by their phone once they notice someone who should occupy a designated seat board the bus, and people who just don’t get up to offer their seat. Sometimes people don’t even move for a wheelchair. Until the bus driver requests that space be made for a wheelchair, at which point, sometimes it becomes a staring contest between the people occupying the two bench seating areas, one across from the other, that can be converted to a wheelchair seating area: Who will move first!

Perhaps some people are utterly oblivious…but some people just don’t seem to care! Siiiiiiigh.

Maiden Names

I wanted to share a lunchtime conversation that I had with some colleagues a few days ago. It started with a discussion on selecting a name for a baby and ended on an interesting question: do you know your grandmothers’ maiden names?

Most people know their mother’s maiden name and often their partner’s mother’s maiden name. However, knowledge of the lineage beyond that commonly gets fuzzy. I’ve always had interest in putting together a family tree but (a) my extended family on both sides is spread over a number of countries and (b) my extended family is HUGE!

After that lunchtime discussion, I really think I should start working on the family tree because I have no idea what my grandmothers’ maiden names were! I’m not even sure I know the names of all of my cousins, let alone their partners and children.

Now to search for ideas on putting together a family tree for a large and complex extended family….

Stimulating Saturdays: Food Waste

I remember going to an outdoor school in grade 4. We were incredibly fortunate at my school to have access to such a facility. We would all pile into school buses with sleeping bags and outside clothes for a 3 day stay at outdoor school, where we – city kids – would learn about nature (like what the inside of a fish feels like!). At meals, we were assigned chores. Some of us would be responsible for putting together the day’s weather forecast (so that everyone would know how to dress after breakfast), some of us would help prepare and set tables for meals, some of us would clear the table…and that included collecting all of the leftover food to feed the resident pigs. Now, as a 10 year old, I recall seeing the slop of food that we took in metal pails to the pigs and thinking how disgusting it looked, but I also remember the pigs really loving the fare!

Food waste is a complex issue because it arises in so many different facets. Supermarkets getting rid of food because it is no longer saleable, households overbuying food at the supermarket and throwing it out in the garbage, producers losing food because they can’t process it efficiently (just as an example).