Eating Plastic: The Food Card

from The Ram's Horn #172, August 1999

Eating Plastic Revisited
by Cathleen Kneen

There are some things that are so obvious that one feels a little foolish stating them. For example: foodis the basis of health; appropriate food is a prerequisite for general population health and resistance todisease in general as well as specific nutrition-related complaints. Furthermore, food is not just acollection of nutrients: it has cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual meanings and resonance. Good food isessential to well-being, to personal and community wholeness and abundance of life.

And to put it crudely, poor health is a drain on the economy, even in places without a publiclyfunded health care system, simply in terms of lost work days, not to mention reduction in generalenergy and creativity. A third example: food which is grown close to where it is consumed, with aminimum of chemical or processing interventions, provides more nourishment than food which isindustrially produced and shipped long distances to the consumer.

The conclusion: to improve population well-being and reduce high health-care costs, make thebasics of a healthy diet, sourced locally, available to the entire population.

As we wrote in an article proposing the FoodCard in Ram's Horn #91, February 1992: "We areproud of our public health-care, and we pay lip-service to nutrition as the basis of health; but as ourNova Scotia dentist noted in regard to health care costs, the mouth is not considered to be part of thehuman 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 intoit is of primary importance to good health could save us a bundle on medical costs. 'Internal medicine'might take on new meaning."

We already provide nutritional supplements to young mothers "at risk" to reduce the likelihoodof low-birth-weight babies, which are recognised to be less likely to thrive. Many communities alsoprovide breakfast and lunch programs for school children, since we know that hungry children don'tlearn well. Not to mention the proliferation of charitable emergency feeding programs which strive tomeet the increasing need for food among the growing numbers of marginalised and hungry citizens. One major problem with such programs is that they are targeted to those 'most in need' and as a resultrecipients experience a loss of autonomy (ability to choose what they eat), dignity, and sense of self-worth all of which have been identified as important elements of personal health.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to resolve these difficulties. Many people already pay for theirgroceries with 'plastic' debit cards and most people have a health card. Why not code the magneticstrip on the health card to reflect the food status of the owner (eg. senior, pregnant woman, parentresponsible for feeding x number of children) and have it swiped at the check-out just like a debit cardor whatever. (The cards could be re-coded whenever there was a significant change in the foodrequirements of the cardholder.) The cost of the basic elements of a whole-food diet would then bededucted from the total grocery bill, and the price of these items would be covered by the health-care budget. Major grocery chains would probably be happy to receive only a minimalhandling fee, since the 'core diet' would be available to everyone (it is generalpopulation health which is the goal, not second-guessing who may or may not be ableto eat well) and would act like a loss-leader to bring people into the stores, even if theparticipating stores are required to put the basics up front, rather than at the back ofthe store where they are now.

What would be 'on the card'? A procurement agency would need to be set up, advised bynutritionists and experts in public health and sustainable local agriculture. In addition to, for example,milk and eggs (which would be easy, since they are already under supply management), other wholefoods such as potatoes, dried beans, and fresh vegetables in season could be added to provide a basicbalanced diet. Since the entire population would be entitled to food, and the food provided would bewhole, unprocessed items, risk of hoarding or other abuse should be minimal (less than with our currentdrug programs!).

The procurement agency would have to operate at the local or regional level to ensure that the foodsupplied was of local origin: we don't want to have tax dollars flowing out of the country, after all. Itcould contract with local farmers, providing them a secure market and one which reflects the seasons,so that the core diet would vary as summer's green leafy vegetables give way to storage crops such asbeets, cabbage, and in some areas fresh winter kale. It could also be varied to reflect the particularrequirements of local cultural groups. In order to ensure the highest quality of food, the agency couldrequire that the food be produced according to the Organic Standard, thus also encouraging the healthof the soil and water along with the population. Contracting farmers would, of course, be paid fairly.

What are the costs of such a system? Aside from the set-up and operations of the procurementagencies, there is the concern that some people will be getting free food who can well afford to pay forit. That is easily overcome by making the tax system more progressive; we already do this with other'universal' programs. As we commented back in 1992, "In case you don't remember, a progressive taxstructure is one in which the more money you earn the more you pay in income tax, includingcorporations, i.e., taxes are based on the ability to pay."

What are the benefits? Given the way we calculate the Gross Domestic Product, the economicbenefits may not be as visible as they are real. There is no question, however, that the proliferation ofviable, small-scale, organic farms has a real economic benefit to the local community they may nothave 'jobs' but such farmers are gainfully employed and tend towards labour-intensive rather thancapital-intensive operations (i.e. they hire people). The benefits to individual and public health are clear,including the benefits of a larger proportion of non-polluting farms, and the immeasurable benefits offood security on the general well-being of the population. Finally, think of all the good works peoplecould be engaged in when they don't have to spend so much time organizing and volunteering at foodbanks!

This is an idea whose time has come. The only question is, which jurisdiction will be the first todo it?