Originally published in The Hill Times, April 1, 2021
The numbers are devastating. Almost one in seven Canadians (14.6 per cent) reported they live in a household where they’ve experienced food insecurity over the past 30 days, according to the Statistics Canada survey conducted May 4-10, 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. Those living in households with children were more likely to be worried about food running out before there was money to buy more.
Affordable and easy access to healthy food is not a new challenge for Canada. It only took a global pandemic to shine a spotlight on the millions of Canadians who lack access to quality, affordable food.
Communities and community organizations across Canada have been pulling together in the face of loss and economic hardship—and they are to be commended. But they can’t do it alone. Governments need to create an environment where long-lasting and innovative solutions are possible. The status quo is no longer enough. If we want to make food insecurity, like the pandemic itself, a distant memory, we need new approaches.
It’s time the federal government delivered on its promise of a social innovation and finance strategy.
In 2018, the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group released its report, Inclusive Innovation: New Ideas and New Partnerships for Stronger Communities with 12 recommendations to help communities tackle their toughest social and environmental challenges, including food insecurity, through skill development, unlocking private capital, increasing market access, and regulatory changes.
In response, the federal government committed to developing a new Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy, a $50-million Investment Readiness Program, and $755-million Social Finance Fund. This was welcome news. However, today, the Social Finance Fund has yet to be rolled out, and after a very successful two-year pilot, the Investment Readiness Program is set to expire this month. There has been little action on the remaining recommendations.
Why is social innovation so critical for addressing food insecurity?
Social innovation is about redefining relationships and the way we do things. Innovation, by definition, is about taking risks and learning from our failures and our successes, much like the search for an effective COVID-19 vaccine. And social finance provides the means to achieve a sustainable future.
A nationwide social innovation strategy would enable us to move away from a siloed and risk averse approach to food security and other recurring challenges. It would allow communities, co-operatives, and non-profit organizations to create and test bold solutions with governments unified in their efforts to remove barriers and roadblocks. The promised Social Finance Fund would also make it possible for investment-ready organizations to attract investment from the private sector.
Social innovation is about a return to community.
Take, for example, Quebec’s La Cantine pour tous (Canteen for Everybody), the first network in the province to bring together community organizations and other partners to share often underutilized food production and distribution equipment, catering expertise and online ordering. Licensed caterers prepare food in school kitchens and parents can order and pay for meals online. In 2020, the program mobilized in response to COVID-19 with support from the Quebec government. Member organizations distributed some 1,500 meals every day for the homeless in emergency shelters established by the City of Montreal.
In Toronto, advocates for food sovereignty—the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food—are advocating for a Black food ecosystem. They want community members to be empowered with the tools, resources and financing to farm and distribute food. It will take bold leadership and bold ideas to put regulatory policies in place to protect agricultural land and make it more affordable for these communities. Social finance funding will be critical in order to create a pool of capital to make land acquisition more affordable, removing inequities and levelling the playing field.
The federal government’s last full budget more than two years ago made promises on the Social Finance Fund that need to be kept. The upcoming budget provides an opportunity to, once again, prioritize Social Innovation and Social Finance.
Now, more than ever, Canada needs a social innovation strategy so that communities, through the mobilisation and creativity of citizens and social purpose organisations, can put their innovative solutions to work.
Nancy Neamtan serves on the board of directors of Food Secure Canada and is a strategic advisor for the Chantier de l’économie sociale and the Territoires innovants en économie sociale et solidaire. She was a member of the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group.
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