OTTAWA -- Canada is ignoring its international obligations to ensure all Canadians have access to food, a United Nations official said Wednesday after completing an 11-day tour of the country.
Olivier De Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, said 800,000 families -- nearly two million people -- in Canada don't always know where their next meal is coming from. He said one in 10 families with kids under the age of six is 'food insecure,' meaning they don't have physical and economic access to an adequate amount of nutritious and safe food.
"I have to say my concerns are extremely severe, and I don't see why I should mince my words," he said.
Canada, he said, has a great record on civil rights but it isn't holding up its end when it comes to social rights. There is a growing divide between rich and poor that must be addressed, he said.
De Schutter called for a national food strategy that takes into account issues including an agricultural policy geared toward exports rather than domestic consumption and social assistance and minimum wage rates that are too low for families to afford healthy diets.
De Schutter spent two days of his tour in Manitoba, including meetings with provincial and aboriginal leaders in Winnipeg, and trips to Peguis, Sagkeeng, God's River and Wasagamack First Nations.
"I am struck by the desperate situation in which many find themselves," he said of the reserves he visited.
In particular, the remoteness drives up the price of food and the new national program to subsidize food prices in remote communities isn't being monitored properly to ensure the savings are passed on to the consumers, he said.
As well, access to traditional food, including hunting, fishing and trapping, is becoming less accessible due to flooding, environmental contamination and government policies that restrict or prevent aboriginal control over their own land.
The federal government was harshly critical of De Schutter's visit. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq called him "uninformed" and criticized him for discussing nutrition in the north without visiting the Arctic.
"I found him a bit patronizing and another academic studying us from afar," Aglukkaq said.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called the visit a waste of time.
-- with files from Mary Agnes Welch
Cost of food: Winnipeg versus Shammatawa First Nation, May 16, 2012
4 L of milk $4.69 vs. $13.99
0.4 kg ground beef $3.99 vs. $6.80
Package of spaghetti $3.08 vs. $5.09
Jar of pasta sauce $3.21 vs. $5.69
Loaf of bread $2.99 vs. $3.65
4 kg of sugar $6.79 vs. $16.49
1 kg bananas $1.94 vs. $6.55
4.5 kg potatoes $6.99 vs. $20.99
600 g cheese $11.73 vs. $14.99
24 cheese slices $6.08 vs. $17.69