Canadians face immense challenges. Many families struggle to pay the rent; they can’t afford their children’s school supplies or school trips. Many rely on donations at the food bank just to feed their families.

In numbers, one in seven Canadians live in poverty. That’s over five million people — including over one million children. And there are an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people homeless. Last year close to 900, 000 Canadians used food banks every month, with over one third of those children.

We also have increasing income and wealth inequality that is changing the core of our society. The Conference Board of Canada gave Canada a “C” grade for inequality, ranking us 12th out of 17 countries studied.

How can it be that in a rich country like Canada, food insecurity, and its most extreme form—hunger—are not rare? In fact, 1 in 8 households in cover of Canadian Public Policy journalCanada is food insecure. Would an answer be apparent if we knew how the problem was talked about by our legislators?

In our paper … we examined how food insecurity is discussed in the Canadian political discourse, specifically in Parliament and in selected provincial legislatures. We analyzed the Federal Hansard records and those of three provinces over the last two decades to bring to light how Canadian politicians construct the problem of household food insecurity.

We learned in the political debates that food insecurity is inextricably linked to food banks in this country. Food banks are in fact the dominant charitable response to hunger in Canada, and have been since the 1980s. The problem is that food banks don’t address the fundamental cause of food insecurity – inability to afford food- and also cannot possibly on their own address the issue of hunger. As Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank points out, food bank use only scratches the surface of food insecurity: many who need help do not even use food banks.

Food bank stats significantly understate the prevalence of food insecurity. We know this because Statistics Canada has been monitoring the problem nationally for almost a decade through the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). With its rigorous methods and large sample size this survey provides reliable health data at the provincial, territorial and national levels. It reveals more than four million Canadians were food insecure in 2012 – the most recent national estimate we have.

Food Banks Canada surveys its members every March to estimate use. In 2012 they estimated that only 882,188 people used food banks that month. The stark difference between the results of the CCHS and Food Banks Canada shows there’s a much larger problem than we’ve understood. Food insecurity in Canada is a national crisis.

Changes in Canadian public policy tend to be incremental, but a groundswell seems to be building for a plan that could radically remake our social benefits structure.

The concept is simple. Replace the raft of income-support provisions currently administered, means-tested, audited and doled out by various levels of government – welfare, community housing allowances, employment insurance – with a single benefit. It could be run through the tax system. If your income is below a certain level, you get a cheque.

It’s time to test the assumptions in the real world. Launch some guaranteed annual income pilot programs. Let’s see how theory translates into practice in Canada.

A basic income guarantee could replace social assistance, with all its problems, as well as supplement earned income. An adequate basic income would virtually eliminate food insecurity in this country. This is one of the major ways in which basic income would operate to save us money, by improving health and saving costs in the health care system.

In addition, if a basic income were effective in addressing poverty, we would see the food banks in this country disappear because no one would need them anymore. Imagine what other projects we could tackle with so much energy and time and enthusiasm released from charitable food provisioning.

That a neoliberal government like the one we have in Quebec, which has sought by all means since coming to power to reduce the size and role of the state, is suddenly enthusiastic about a guaranteed minimum income should arouse suspicion. Like they say, the devil is in the details, and that’s where we should focus our attention.