Bioethics Blogs

Hungry Canadians: Changing the Conversation from Food Charity to the Right to Food

Graham Riches argues that there is a need to reframe the issue of food insecurity in terms of rights, not charity.


Feeding hungry Canadians with donated, surplus food is a practice that was imported in the early 1980s from the USA and has become the primary task of charitable food banks. Yet, “food charity,” supported by the food industry and corporate social responsibility, does not work.

Framing food insecurity as a matter of charity is ineffective and ethically challengeable. It also disguises the true extent and causes of food insecurity, namely income poverty and underemployment. Furthermore, it stigmatizes low-income individuals and undermines their human right to adequate food and nutrition. Government looks the other way. Public policy is neglected.

Food security for all requires changing the conversation to “the right to food.” The problem is that domestic hunger is now socially constructed as a matter for charity, no longer a priority concern for government. Long forgotten is Canada’s ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976). Food is recognized as a basic human need and a human and legal right—protected under international law, and an obligation of government to “respect, protect and fulfill.”

Yet minimalist government (federal and provincial), lower taxes, downloading, and privatization have since de-politicized hunger and the right to food, now airbrushed from political consciousness and public policy. No wonder wealthy, food secure Canada, despite a universal right to health care, has 4 million people (12.5% of the population) experiencing food insecurity due to lack of money.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.