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Feeding the family on plastic


It is time to introduce some rationality into the debate about social welfare. We are proud of our public healthcare, and we pay lip-service to nutrition as the basis of health; but as our Nova Scotia dentist noted in regard to health care costs, the mouth is not considered to be part of the human body.

A public investment in adequate nutrition for every citizen would be the wisest and, yes, most efficient, investment any society could make. Recognizing that the mouth and all that goes into it is of primary importance to good health could save us a bundle on medical costs. "Internal medicine" might take on new meaning.

Residents in most province's have a plastic Health Card. The major purpose of this card is, however, to facilitate the delivery of sick-care. If adequate nutrition is the basis of good health, why not a real health card: a credit card for basic nutrition.

This Food Card would be used to "buy" the basic food staples required by the cardholder. The actual cost of the food would be financed through the tax system in the same way our medicare is. (Obviously the implementation of such a health system should be accompanied by the introduction of a genuinely universal, progressive tax structure. In case you don't remember, a progressive tax structure is one in which the more money you earn the more you pay in income tax, including corporations, i.e., taxes are based on the ability to pay!)

Each credit card for nutrition would be encoded according to the number and condition of people that are (so to speak) eating off the card. A single woman with two small children would have a certain line of credit for basic foods that would supply her and her children with an adequate base of nutrition.

And a pregnant woman would receive credit for an appropriate diet which would be quite different than that of a single older man, for example. The cards could be recoded whenever there was a significant change in the food requirements of the cardholder.

With this food-credit card the cardholder would be able to go to any store participating in the program and "buy" their food allowance. At the same time any other food, snacks, cleaning supplies, or whatever could also be purchased.

At the checkout the cashier would enter all the items in normal fashion and then run the Food Card through the "reader." The food credit would be registered electronically and the customer would pay only for the food and other items that were not allowed within the food-card credit.

This system would be completely non-discriminatory. There would be no visible way of identifying the "needy," since everyone would be using the same system. If those with money choose not to use this system, but prefer to purchase upscale, highly processed or imported foods, they can do so. On the other hand, no one is compelled to line up at a food bank or to go to the welfare office.

The stores participating in this program would be required to meet certain standards. They would have to carry a range of staples which would provide basic nutrition for a variety of diets, depending on the ethnic populations of the area served by the store. The stores would be paid a service fee to cover their costs. This would be calculated on the amount of food-credit card business they actually conducted, which would provide an incentive to the stores to do a good job.

The food provided on "credit" would also have to meet certain standards of nutrition, quality, and source. Locally (provincially) grown food would be given preference, as would minimally processed and packaged food. Fruit and vegetables would be graded on nutritional, not cosmetic quality, thus addressing the current problem of marketing "blemished" or "off-grade" fruits and vegetables.

Since this is a holistic approach, it would only be common sense to stipulate that food handled in this system be ecologically produced in order to provide food that is as healthy as possible for both people and the land. It would thus provide both the means and the incentive to deal creatively with the deepening farm crisis by creating a real "market" for healthy, locally grown food.

Participation by farmers, processors, distributors and retailers could be voluntary, and there would probably be few who would not want to participate, for whatever reasons. It might, in fact, be harder to gain the cooperation of some welfare bureaucracies and the medical profession than it would of business people who are accustomed to the notion of investment for future profit, security, or market share.

We have the technology, and we have the structures to initiate such a system. The only question is, is there a government anywhere with the imagination and guts to do it?

Ontario could initiate such a program almost immediately, refining the system as it goes along. Manitoba or the Maritime provinces, Saskatchewan or Quebec could also initiate it. Or even Metro Toronto, or Sao Paulo, Brazil!

Source: The Ram's Horn, a monthly newsletter of food system analysis.

Copyright 1992 REAP Canada.

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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