Under massive pressure from the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association, Dalton McGuinty has spiked the fat tax on meals under $4. Now, that's socially responsible. I'd just about given up on the ability of political movers and shakers to give a damn about the food needs of the disadvantaged and the needy. My problem was that I was looking at all the wrong signs. I was disappointed because there hadn't been a peep of protest about the freeze on Ontario social assistance rates since 1995, when they were cut back by 20 per cent, or because there wasn't a howl of outrage when the Ontario government raised the minimum wage by a measly 15 cents an hour.
But I was giving up too soon. It's just that the right issue hadn't come along to tap into all that compassion out there. The ill-fated proposal to end the provincial tax exemption on restaurant and cafeteria meals under $4 has brought out all the latent sympathy for the sick, the obese, the disabled, the poor, the students and seniors - the people restaurant and cafeteria owners want to serve soups and salads to if only the government would let them.
But this concern is the last thing the poor, or anyone's heart health, needs.
The proposal to tax nutrient-challenged near-foods (can we be honest for just a minute and concede that most of the meals restaurants push for less than $4 aren't salads but junk food?) was in line with "Twinkie-taxing" moves on the agenda in 15 U.S. states.
These and other measures dealing with nutrient-challenged foods are championed by public health advocates who identify the North American food industry practices behind obesity as "the new tobacco." A wide range of both carrots and sticks are being proposed to deal with a public health menace that already kills as many people from heart disease and cancer each year as cigarettes.
For the first time in world history, as many people suffer from ill health as a result of eating too much food as from too little - about a billion people in each category. Yet the dominant thinking about making food artificially cheap through agricultural tax exemptions, lax regulations (on pesticides, for example) and a range of direct subsidies come from an era when food was scarce, when food budgets accounted for a third of household income, when snacks and treats rare, and before most meals were industrially processed with grease and sugar.
Experts commonly refer to the largely invisible set of practices promoting mass production of low-cost foods as the "cheap food policy."
By contrast, continental European governments prioritized affordable housing and let food prices reflect the real cost of production and human health. It's almost impossible to deny that the European approach has worked better for both social equality and public health.
Cheap food, by contrast, has eroded the health of rich and poor alike. It's perhaps a rich irony that cheap food is the leading cause of world hunger, since cheap and subsidized foods exported from North America (and increasingly Europe) are driving peasant farmers - the largest group among the developing world's chronically hungry - off the land.
Cheap food also lurks behind the declining standard of living among North American workers. As cheap and fast food take over, the union wages and working conditions once the norm in meat-packing companies and supermarkets are declining toward extinction. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the poor are doubly victims of cheap food.
A wide variety of subsidies - including cheap fast food meals' exemption from provincial taxes since 1987 - results in junk food's low cost. This contributes to the recent trend toward obesity that's especially marked among people on low incomes, a condition once limited to the well-heeled and rare among the poor.
In turn, unsafe eating practices partly account for the fact that the poorest people in Canada live about four years less than the wealthiest, a form of two-tier health care and discrimination against the poor that no one wants to talk about.
The real problem with the now dormant proposal is that it didn't earmark the $200 million expected from the new tax for programs making healthy foods more accessible. This is a tax that needed a carrot as well as a stick, to give back to groups organizing farmers markets, community gardens or school meals, for example.
In the meantime, those concerned about the well-being of people on low incomes might try an old-fashioned approach: lobby to raise their incomes.