UN report highlights Canadian, local food security issues

NANAIMO – Increase in food bank use a symptom, not a solution, to widening gap in wealth.

A UN representative has sparked debate in Canada for a national food strategy.

And many of the topics Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur for food, touched on during his 11-day visit to Canada, which included time spent in inner cities and on First Nation reserves, can be applied to Nanaimo, says a local food expert.

De Schutter criticized the Canadian government for not having a national food strategy while more than 900,000 households – about 2.5 million citizens – are “in a desperate situation” when it comes to obtaining adequate daily nourishment.

De Schutter, who has an extensive background in governance and human rights, said financial inequality is getting worse, with the top 10 per cent now 10 times more affluent than the bottom 10 per cent, and that minimum wage and social assistance levels are far too low for people to properly nourish themselves.

Marjorie Stewart, board chairwoman of the Foodshare Society and president of the multi-stakeholder Heritage Foodservice Co-op, said a person doesn’t have to look far to see how families are struggling to provide both food and shelter.

“I was speaking with a young women in that situation … and she told me, ‘you try finding healthy food and staying away from the cheap fast food places and the unhealthy filling food when you don’t have enough money,'” said Stewart.

“The thing De Schutter did is he put his finger right on the problem many people in Nanaimo are facing. People on social assistance, which is not a huge amount of money, are finding that by the time they have paid for housing they don’t have enough money for food. It’s as simple to that.”

Along with a national food strategy, De Schutter recommends increasing taxes, especially for the wealthy, to help provide nourishing food for those who can’t afford it. He also suggests taking massive industrial farms and breaking them down to smaller farms to make them more efficient, while reconnecting communities with their food sources.

Nanaimo-Cowichan NDP MP Jean Crowder said in her constituency, there is firm evidence that more and more people can’t afford access to healthy or enough food.

“The indicators are that some people are in trouble,” said Crowder, who sat in on De Schutter’s press conference in Ottawa on May 16. “Food bank usage is up, B.C. has the highest child poverty rates in the country. You know, food banks and soup kitchens are a symptom, not a solution, to the problem. When food banks were introduced, they were only supposed to be temporary.”

The first food bank in Canada opened in 1981 in Edmonton. There are currently more than 700 food banks and 3,000 food programs across Canada today.

Crowder added she has spent time at local food banks and watched the demand for them increase. She has also seen the extreme poverty on First Nations reserves.

“There are lots of reports about the widening gap, the bottom 20 per cent are falling further and further behind and we’re not being proactive about it. Instead, the government is attacking De Schutter for his report rather than looking at the merits of it.”

The system of providing and obtaining food, said Stewart, is broken.

By driving food prices down by any means possible, Canadian farmers are unable to make a profit, which has resulted in farmers under the age of 35 dropping from 77,000 to less than 25,000 over the past few years. By reducing farm sizes and cutting back on agricultural exports, Canadians can once again produce healthy food that is attainable.

“It think De Schutter is the voice of the future,” said Stewart. “He understands that the future lies in agro-ecology, not in the massive industrial systems that are failing us today. There are different ways of defining efficiencies and economists’ definitions can sometimes be way out in la-la land.

“To you and me efficiency means producing more food for people to eat. To an economist it means low prices however you can get them, and that may not be very practical. The people growing the best food, the food we want, are rapidly going out of business.”

Canada is one of the few developed countries that does not have a national food strategy or a strategy to reduce poverty.

Crowder, who supports a national food strategy, said it is time the government showed leadership and initiated meetings with provinces, municipalities and First Nations to begin a discussion on ensuring Canadians have access to enough healthy and nutritious food.

“There’s not a one size fits all solution so we need to look at several models,” said Crowder, noting that the NDP initiated the ban on trans fats and is working to reduce sodium content in food. “We need to assist people with education and create prevention strategies. We need to promote more exercise and provide better nutritional education.”