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Ensuring people can afford food through income support is better for their mental and physical health, generates less food waste and is more cost-effective than food banks when it comes to tackling food insecurity, new research suggests.

A recent study looking at the impact of an organization that gives grocery store gift cards to food-insecure families in Calgary found that the approach reduced household stress, bolstered people's dignity and autonomy and allowed them to supply their kitchens with food better suited to their needs, which helped reduce food waste.

"This is not a food supply issue, this is an income-based issue," said Bobbi Turko, executive director of I Can for Kids, the organization researchers studied. "The impact of providing income-based support has a ripple effect. It is dignity, it's autonomy, it's choice, it's diet quality — those are all of the things we're touching through this type of approach."

About 18 per cent of Canadians were food-insecure in 2022, according to federal data and the problem has only been getting worse as people are squeezed between stagnant wages or income supports and rising costs for food and rent.

People on fixed incomes like federal disability payments are particularly at risk. This year, the maximum monthly payment at $1,538. According to Living Wage Canada, the living wage for a single person in Calgary in 2022 was more than double that, at $3,733 a month.

Matt* is among those who receive grocery gift cards from the organization. He lost his job managing a homeless shelter seven years ago due to a debilitating form of Tourette's syndrome that causes him to aggressively yell and swear. He struggles to afford food for himself, his partner and their three-year-old daughter.

The government disability payments he receives aren't enough to cover soaring food and housing costs, forcing the family to rely on food banks to eat. While grateful for the food, food banks are "humiliating," eliminating his ability to choose food and emphasizing his disability. People misunderstand his condition and react negatively to his tics; last year, a man attacked him in front of his daughter.

"It was dangerous, all because of a misunderstanding," he said. "I hurt because the systems are designed in ways that don't work for people like me. I bring chaos everywhere I go."

Desperate to find a safer way to feed his family, a former colleague connected him to I Can for Kids. The organization's approach of offering grocery gift cards offered some respite from the food bank, allowing him to buy groceries online or in the safer environment of a grocery store. They "really changed things a little," he said, though high food costs mean he still sometimes relies on food banks or other charities to feed his family.

Ensuring people can afford food through income support is better for their mental and physical health, generates less food waste and is more cost-effective than food banks when it comes to tackling food insecurity, new research suggests. 

"Everything is so expensive, and my disability income didn't go up for the cost of living. It's really rough because I fear losing my home," he said. The grocery gift cards allow him to stretch his disability payments enough for savings and to meet other expenses and bills.

The impact of the gift cards extended beyond material benefits, helping him deal with the psychological toll of living with a disability like Tourette's, he said. His tics are "like little robberies of your agency, all day long," isolating him and exacerbating his inner "darkness," he said. The grocery gift cards don't solve his problems, but they do offer a glimmer of hope.

"Being in a dark place and feeling helpless to get out is really, really shitty," he said.

Turko acknowledged that gift cards are not a perfect solution. Food insecurity is an income problem, she said. Solving the crisis will take people's ability to afford food and other necessities, whether through targeted supports or a universal basic income.

But beyond the immediate relief her program offers, she believes the gift cards help shift public perceptions of food insecurity. Instead of redistributing food through charities like food banks or food rescue organizations, the gift card approach can help foster a public "leap in understanding" and trust toward income-based approaches to deal with the crisis.

"We're taking steps towards proving the power of that income-based support and the ripple effect that income has on a household," she said. "People need to understand that (income supports) are not just about the people who are receiving the benefit. It's about all of us — we all benefit when we can lift people out of that situation."

Still, Matt said that while he supports options like a universal basic income, he would prefer to find a job willing to accommodate his condition. He wants to work — he loved his past jobs and misses the sense of purpose that comes from employment.

"I deserve a good job and the stuff that other people take for granted. But I can't have it and that's a hard pill to swallow," he said.

Note: Matt’s last name was omitted to protect his privacy.

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Some time after we divorced, and I relocated, I learned that my dear first husband was having to go to food banks. We'd always kept in touch, and he was not the one who let me know this--a mutual friend did. He was on disability, and old age pensions, and of course, it was not enough to keep him homed & fed.

I thought for a long time how I could send him some $, without imperiling his existing supports, something that he wouldn't have to declare, like a straight $ transfer. I settled on grocery store gift cards, and sent him as large a one as I could manage, every month.

We never talked about this, in our correspondence, but I heard from mutual friends that it was a real help for him. I was so glad to be able to do this for him--he was one of the best human beings I've ever known. It gave him a little breathing room, financially, and independence, and dignity.

It's obscene to me, has been for decades, that Canada cannot get its act together to implement a Universal Guaranteed Basic Annual Income. The only thing blocking that is ideology--and selfishness on the part of voters, who will NOT demand it from our governments. We SAW that this could work, if properly implemented, with CERB, during the heights of COVID.

No more bandaids. No more multiplicity of income support programs, that require excess expensive bureaucracy and gymnastics on the part of already-overloaded people in need.

In the meantime? Yes, gift cards (although I hate to provide any more funding to robber barons) seem to me to be a workable alternative.

Grocery store gift cards buy a small fraction of what an equivalent amount of cash would, shopping the best specials at all supermarkets, and at produce marts where that is the best option.
Frankly, it's obscene that social assistance allows taking whatever junk food on offer at the FoodBank is OK, but help with groceries is not.
That's the obscenity arising out of this article, but even more obscene is the amounts social assistance provides. People *with* jobs can't make ends meet on $15/hr ... but people who cannot work because of disability should somehow be able to do so on less than $7/hr.
All that, while the current Ontario government has been able to accumulate a $2.5bn "surplus," while the purchasing power of people on Ontario Disability experience less and less purchasing power by the month.

Universal Guaranteed Basic Annual Income(BGI): Economists, politicians and sociologists have been discussing this idea since before the industrial revolution, usually in the context of "looking after the poor" and concluding that it would be a good idea - certainly better than welfare programs (Google Negative Income Tax). Since the 1960's BGI is often discussed in the context of "sharing the wealth", i.e. sharing the accumulated wealth of society rather than allowing those who can grab it keep as much as they can grab (vide Grocery Barons, Banks, Oil Companies, Politicians, and capitalists in general). The several modern experiments (Manitoba, Finland) have shown that this is a practical solution. The earliest controlled experiment in the UK showed this too, but the results were faked to show the poor result desired by the rich - yes, faked!
Meanwhile, in politicians are fixated on GDP growth and "jobs, jobs, jobs" - see also Climate Change for the suicidal futility of this strategy.
Clearly it is time we decided we are rich enough; and we surely would be if we were to share the wealth more equitably. (See also Donut Economics)
Clearly the time has come to break the link between getting a share of our communities wealth and having a 'job'. We also need to break the link between wealth and accidents of birth. A wealth tax and an inheritance tax will certainly fund a universal GBI while income tax will fund regular government programs (check out tax rates, 1947 - 1970).