Should Canadian health promoters support a food stamp-style program to address food insecurity?

Food insecurity is an urgent public health problem in Canada, affecting 4 million Canadians in 2012, including 1.15 million children, and associated with significant health concerns. With little political will to address this significant policy issue, it has been suggested that perhaps it is time for Canada to try a food stamp-style program. Such a program could reduce rates of food insecurity and improve the nutritional health of low-income Canadians. In this article, we explore the history of the US food stamp program; the key impetus of which was to support farmers and agricultural interests, not to look after the needs of people living in poverty. Though the US program has moved away from its roots, its history has had a lasting legacy, cementing an understanding of the problem as one of lack of food, not lack of income. While the contemporary food stamp program, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), reduces rates of poverty and food insecurity, food insecurity rates in the USA are significantly higher than those in Canada, suggesting a food stamp-style program per se will not eliminate the problem of food insecurity. Moreover, a food stamp-style program is inherently paternalistic and would create harm by reducing the autonomy of participants and generating stigma, which in itself has adverse health effects. Consequently, it is ethically problematic for health promoters to advocate for such a program, even if it could improve diet quality.

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Health Promotion International