Food banks help, but problems run deeper

I am opposed to using emergency aid as a substitute for the social programs I want my tax money to provide.

After 30 years of food banks in Canada, the Hunger Count 2015 report just released by Food Banks Canada shows food bank use is on the rise across the country, especially in Alberta. In Nanaimo the trend is also toward an increase in demand. Loaves and Fishes food bank executive director Peter Sinclair has seen increases between one per cent and three per cent each year.

If food banks are meant to relieve hunger, they are not working.

The report tells us that more than 850,000 people across Canada use a food bank each month. Seven per cent of those are pension earners and 16 per cent get their primary income through work, while 46 per cent are on social assistance, and another 18 per cent are on some form of disability pension. At the same time, Canada’s high rents leave some people spending over 80 per cent of their monthly income on rent, with maybe $200 left for food.

Food Banks Canada executive director Katharine Schmidt says solutions include investment in affordable housing, jobs training, the introduction of a basic livable income, and increasing access to traditional foods for the people of the North.

A month ago the Canadian Federation of University Women Nanaimo hosted a talk by Graham Riches, retired global food security expert, in which he expressed his position that we should be pursuing a right to food policy rather than depending on charitable giving. Riches asks the key question: “Why do we need food banks when we have employment insurance, pensions, social assistance?”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letter for the minister of Families, Children and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos, includes instructions to bring forward a poverty reduction strategy.

I support emergency food aid and give monthly to the 7-10 Club and Loaves and Fishes. But I am opposed to using emergency aid as a substitute for the social programs I want my tax money to provide. I also want the private sector to stop lowering wages and stop paying poverty wages.

Pascal Zamprelli, Canadian director of Change.org tells us, “We have a critical mass of better-informed consumers, they speak to each other, there’s collective action and they’re mobilizing and able to collaborate very quickly. This is what I believe is changing the behaviour of decision-makers.”

As the dark months arrive, so do time-honoured traditions of celebration of light, warmth and fellowship. Generous feelings spill over into feasting and sharing and giving. The other day, I noticed a heading about “giving back” and I remembered that heart-tugging movie Pay It Forward. What’s the difference between paying back and paying forward? Peter Buffet says “as long as most folks are patting themselves on the back for charitable acts, we’ve got a perpetual poverty machine.”

Celebrate, share, give food, donate, volunteer, and think about two strategies: hold our new government to a real poverty-reduction strategy and use communications technology to tell unethical private businesses we will not support them.

Marjorie Stewart is past chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.

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