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Donating ‘edible waste’ to food banks in exchange for tax credit? Now that’s a rubbish idea

Valerie Tarasuk is a professor in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.

The National Zero Waste Council has launched a campaign to reduce food waste by advocating federal tax credits for food companies that donate edible food waste to food charities. They are asking Canadian municipalities to support the campaign, suggesting that reducing food insecurity through corporate food donations to food banks will lead to better health and education outcomes.

Central to the National Zero Waste Council's argument is the claim that food banks reduce their clients' food insecurity.

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It is encouraging that governments are recognizing the importance of food insecurity. However, recommending millions of dollars in tax credits to encourage multinational food corporations to dump their waste on food charities is indefensible. It will do nothing to reduce food insecurity, let alone improve health and education outcomes.

At first glance, the Zero Waste proposal seems like a win-win. Rescuing food waste from the landfills and giving it to people who really need it – what could be problematic about that?

The term "food insecurity" refers to inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. A household that is food-insecure is struggling to put meals on the table because there isn't enough money.

More than four-million Canadians live in food-insecure households. Rates of household food insecurity are highest in the North and the Maritimes, topping out at 45 per cent in Nunavut. Even in Central and Western Canada, more than one in 10 households is food-insecure.

Food insecurity erodes people's health, setting the stage for them to develop a host of mental and physical health problems. They are less able to manage chronic health conditions and our research has shown that over the course of a year, Ontario adults in severely food-insecure households consume 2.5 times the health-care dollars of those who are food-secure. These findings show both the extraordinary health problems associated with food insecurity in Canada and the high costs associated with the problem.

By the time people are struggling to put food on the table, they are compromising many other expenditures. They are probably behind in the rent and bill payments, and forgoing necessities such as prescription medications.

Research shows that only one in four people living with food insecurity actually uses a food bank, and those who do use food banks are not made food-secure by the experience. Using a food bank does not decrease the probability of a household being food-insecure, nor does it ease the severity of that household's food insecurity. The help food banks provide is nowhere near enough to change households' abilities to meet their basic needs.

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Food banks have been operating in Canada for more than 30 years. They are non-governmental organizations, largely staffed by volunteers and heavily reliant on donations.

They were never intended to manage food insecurity, and, as hard as they try, they cannot address hunger in our communities, even in the short term. Providing tax credits to corporations that donate "edible" food waste to charities will not transform food banks into a more effective system of food relief, let alone provide a solution to food insecurity.

So what's the solution?

Research shows that ensuring adequate household income is essential to reducing food insecurity. This can perhaps best be accomplished through the implementation of a basic income, guaranteeing an income floor below which we do not allow Canadians to fall.

In tandem with this, we need to maintain a sufficient supply of affordable rental housing for low-income households.

And the role for the corporate sector? To ensure that their workers earn enough to meet their basic needs. Better working conditions would go a great deal further to address food insecurity than donating tons of food waste to food banks in exchange for tax credits.

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