The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food bank

Cheers For Fears


PARDON THE CHANGE OF WORDING REGARDING the famous new wave band Tears for Fears, but somehow it seemed suitable over these past few days.

Last week was like few others for those of us associated with the London Food Bank.  Following 28 years of service to our community, we decided the time was right to consider a new way of doing things, of helping those we traditionally assist to find a more dignified way of getting food than lining up at a food bank.

We had known this key moment would be coming for the past couple of years, but now that it had arrived we wondered how our community would react.  Some of it we already knew, through detailed discussions over the last two years with various agencies and institutions who, like us, felt there had to be a better way.  What if we could actually establish cheaper food venues (markets, co-ops, etc.) where our clients, instead of acquiring some $400 of food over the average year, could actually save thousands of dollars by accessing cheaper foodstuffs through these new locations closer to where they lived?  It was an intriguing question.  We would always keep the warehousing part of the operation going, along with food drives and donations, to collect food for the 25 other social agencies we consistently help, but the direct service part of what we were doing would slowly be moved out closer to where those struggling in poverty actually lived.  It made sense to a lot of groups, especially since London has recently launched a food charter designed specifically to bring about such changes.

But what of the broader public, or those businesses that have faithfully supported us over the years?  Would they be offended and perhaps stop giving?  The best way to find that out is to launch the initiative, provide information for the rationale, and wait to see the result.

We didn’t have to wait long.  No sooner had the media published the news than texts, emails, and phone calls began pouring in.  That very afternoon we attended a business venue where former Prime Minister Paul Martin was speaking.  We wondered what to expect.  Almost immediately we were met with handshakes and congratulations for attempting to break the cycle of poverty and for innovating in a time when our city feels stuck in ambivalence and negativity.

Now, a few days later, we have come to understand that our city is looking for change.  Across so many different sectors, leaders have opted to bypass our political dysfunction and take matters into their own hands.  Much grassroots work has been done in recent years and these individuals feel the time is right to grow our community from within instead of waiting for some ultimate, and perhaps impossible, political solution.  The steps we have just taken as a food bank have to be seen in that larger context – the desire for change is popping up everywhere.

In our 28 years of operation we have never experienced such a strong and positive response to any of our other announcements or initiatives.  Instinctively, local citizens know that for food banks, which were supposed to be temporary, to take on a growing role each and every year, was to give a kind of subtle admission that we couldn’t change our own fate, that poverty, and those living in it, were doomed to be an escalating sector in our city.  This they could not bring themselves to accept, and so they have opted to support those initiatives designed to give a sense of independence, dignity, and a sense of equal citizenship.  It has perhaps been the most heartening response we could have expected.

I’ve been our food bank co-director for the entire duration of the organization.  I have grown, been humbled, and learned during all those years.  But I am also getting older, so much so that I have come to expect pain and a sense of loss as I age.  And yet every so often I find myself delightfully surprised by those small miracles that make community living so worthwhile.  I was surprised and overcome in these past few days by a city that doesn’t quit and that believes to collaborate for the sake of those struggling to make ends meet is perhaps the highest civic honour.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote: “Do something every day that scares you.”  Well, after almost three decades we decided to take on a whopper and it left us biting our nails.  But when our community gathered around in encouragement, fear gave way to thankfulness and expectation.

I have always been moved by the sentiment expressed by poet and mystic Rumi: “Let the beauty you love be what you do.”  We have always loved this major undertaking of our lives at the food bank.  But this past week we have discovered anew that we are not alone in that love, but that it is a citizen right and responsibility shared by a deeply compassionate community.  So, yes, any fears we may have entertained concerning how Londoners would respond to this food bank change have been allayed by a sense of collective cheer when we acknowledge that we are our own solution and will write our own story that will include everyone. 

A Christmas Carol Revisited

Below is my Huffington Post piece published yesterday on London’s Kellogg’s employees and their remarkable ability to assist an entire city in recapturing Christmas meaning.

Glen Pearson

Director, London Food Bank, former Member of Parliament

A True Christmas Miracle in London, Ontario

Posted: 12/17/2013 5:32 pm

My hometown of London, Ontario is currently reliving its own version of A Christmas Carol. The announcement last week of the shutting down of the Kellogg’s plant in London, and the increasing pressure from modern capitalism to reduce wages and break unions, has left us as a city reeling and hoping to find better times. We are just like many other communities in this country, as we watch wealth inevitably pull away from us.

Charles Dickens made his name situating the character of the struggling individual against the powerful forces of the moneyed elite. In A Christmas Carol, we find Bob Cratchit working away in a “dismal little cell,” deficient of heat. He dons a tattered white comforter to keep him warm, since he can’t afford a coat. The wage provided him by Ebinezer Scrooge in insufficient for Cratchit to provide a proper Christmas dinner for his family.

And then Scrooge gets spooked — literally. Both the ghost of Christmas present and the ghost of Christmas yet to come reveal to the miser not only the effects of his paltry human spirit, but the true nature of the person he hired and just what a good man he is. Cratchit had always been there for his family, especially with his sick son Tiny Tim. But he had also endured a brutal boss who loved the bottom line and only saw his employee as a means of getting there.

We are left with the impression that two ghosts won the day and that Scrooge experienced a change of heart. But the apparitions were just vehicles to show him the true state of his spirit. Yet his great awakening came the moment he silently witnessed the true character of his employee, his circumstances, and how Cratchit had somehow managed to maintain his belief in the nobility of the human spirit despite the constant threat of job loss and an insufficient wage.

The world is quickly spinning towards a titanic showdown between modern capitalism and democracy and the results are not yet clear. Income inequality is on its way to becoming the true litmus test of not only our communities, but of the free market itself. It can maintain its present course and not only witness the hollowing out of our communities, and also be one of the primary causes. The drive for profits has slowly replaced the desire for place, for communities where hard work is rewarded and where employees are valued participants in the larger economy.

We are rapidly working our way towards a future of wealth for the few without work for the many. Our cities are increasingly witnessing vagabond workers, moving for job to job, often for minimum wage, toiling without benefits and with little future for advancement. Despite fabulous wealth being generated globally, it moves ever upwards, out of reach of average families, and hoarded by protections against spreading it more equitably.

A modern state cannot exist merely made up of politics and private enterprise. Any good society must offer citizens a vast array of ways to get involved in developing various levels of co-existence, solidarity, and participation. Politics and capitalism will dominate any space where a robust civil society is struggling. Worse still, political ideologies and the free market will become increasingly dysfunctional the more humanity is stripped from their workings. In a democracy, this element of civil society, and the ability to determine collective well-being, must be predominant or else we will enter the stage we are presently enduring — power without accountability, wealth without responsibility, and citizenship without community.

We believed the days of Dickens were behind us, but we now see their resurgence. We must press for change, for the great trimming down of economic inequality, and for the reform of capitalism into a place of usefulness and empowerment to our respective communities.

Bob Cratchit comes out as the true hero of Dicken’s novel — a worker, a family man, a believer in the goodness of people, and a man capable of rising above his circumstances.

London, Ontario just witnessed a similar example yesterday, as Kellogg’s employees, despite the devastating news of the impending shutdown, raised $10,000 and purchased quality foodstuffs for the local food bank. If we are ever to find a reason for believing in Christmas, this is it. Those employees have caused me personally to raise my game, to be a better citizen, and to struggle against capitalist and political forces that have lost touch.

I wish for more ghosts this Christmas, to reveal to us the inner strength resident in citizens and to persuade corporate leaders that the true spirit of humanity is not to be found in the bottom line but in the better angels of our nature. Invest in that and we will discover new hope, potential and wealth.

One More Time, With Meaning

Today it is.  The London Food Bank launches its 25th annual Thanksgiving Food Drive, running from today, October 4th right through to Thanksgiving Monday, October 14th.  Every year, some in the media ask us to do something new and different to draw attention to the challenge we face as a food bank.  We always take a pass on that challenge because in our view 3600 families a month coming to us directly for assistance is not only a significant news story but a deep challenge to our community as well.

And we’re not alone in that challenge.  Consider this:

  • 412,998 individuals accessed Ontario food banks in March 2012
  • 38.7% of food bank users, or 159,918 individuals, were children (11,737 more children than in March 2011)
  • 44.6 % of all food bank users were women over 18 years of age
  • 174,618 households were served by food banks (9.8% of which were first time users)
  • 42.8% of food bank users were on social assistance
  • 27.3% of food bank users were on disability support 
  • 64.5% of food bank users were low-income, rental market tenants
  • 19.2% of food banks ran out of nutritious food during the month

Across Ontario there are some 120 food banks that work together – sharing resources, compiling statistics, putting forward research and programs for lessening the demand on food banks themselves.

We are rapidly approaching that time when we as communities must begin some serious discussions as to how we will end hunger.  It won’t just be about governments living up to their commitments, but how we handle employment, those on mental health, create more affordable housing (the #1 cause of food bank use), and how we engage citizens to tackle this ever-growing problem in our midst.  And there will be risks involved.  I am reminded of Helder Camara’s observation, that, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Political labels aside, it is time we took up the challenge of asking why so many of our fellow citizens are hungry.  The old days of stereotyping people on welfare are long gone; in their place stands the reality that significant numbers of people coming to food banks were working just a year ago.

Please help out your local food bank if you can.  And let’s begin preparing ourselves for the significant conversations we as citizens we need to begin if we desire our communities to come back to health again.

Watch the two-minute video above if you want to learn details of this year’s food drive.

On Being Seen

“Will we be seen, by others I mean?” I looked by at the man who had just asked the question, detecting the veiled fear in his gaze.

He is one of the workers locked out of the ElectroMotive plant in London and worry over his family’s future grows with each passing day. It was actually his wife who had phoned me, asking if I would meet the two of them at a small restaurant near the plant itself. She had been pressing her husband to make that call for days, but when he just couldn’t do it she took the initiative for the sake of their two kids. They wanted to talk about how they would access the food bank because that time was drawing near. Their emergency pay during the lockout was slightly over $200 a week and they had no idea how to pay the mortgage or maintain the payments on their van. Worse still, they were running out of ideas of how to feed their young children.

What would you say to them? How would you handle it, or try to provide hope in what is clearly at deeply painful situation? He was rightfully worried about being seen by others when they came to our building. The two of them were going through the process of middle-class decline and degradation. The husband and father wouldn’t look at me, and why should he? Decisions about his life were being made by some CEO living in another country. It was his wife’s courage, brought on by concern for her family, that prompted the meeting.

I went through the prospect of how things would proceed at the food bank, reminding them that they weren’t the first of the workers to approach me in this regard as the food bank’s director. I hugged her in the parking lot and she wouldn’t let go, apologizing for putting me in this situation. When I shook the man’s hand, he finally raised his eyes to me with a look I still can’t determine. “Thanks man, for being there for my kids,” was all he said.

Like it or not, that look caused a mild fear in me. It wasn’t alarm about whether we would have enough resources at the London Food Bank to help folks like this – the London public is notoriously generous. No, I felt the fear, and even a bit of nostalgia, at witnessing the decline of a way of life, of the passing of the progressive middle-class.

One of the things that really irked the wife was that government MPs had purposefully kept away from the workers. She couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps it’s time to concur that she has a point. Three of the four MPs in my community are Conservative – a critical mass of political representation that should clearly carry some clout. There have been criticisms by many this past week concerning the detached nature of the government MP’s comments on the situation.

I know two of the three government MPs and they are good folks. But they’re facing their own lockout – the inability to reach out to those who elected them. What keeps them from at least visiting the workers? Is it fear of reprisal? Fear of the PMO? Or just fear of their inability to actually find a solution? To watch them continue to portray the situation as merely as a provincial problem is something painful to witness. This isn’t about jurisdiction but a community in pain and confusion. It’s not like the recent election, where they refused to attend debates and face the voters. That was about citizens who just didn’t care enough about politics anymore to vote. The MPs secured their victory through the demise of democracy. This is different. It’s about humanity, about recognizing pain in the community and being there for those going through it, regardless of whether you can do anything about it or not. It’s about caring for your neighbour, not protecting your position.

It remains a remarkable thing to behold, when hundreds or perhaps thousands are visiting the workers with various forms of encouragement, but federal representatives refuse to follow their lead. No wonder federal politics seems so irrelevant at present. They could have accomplished more by spending $50 for coffee and taking it to the line than by blaming the province.

Aristotle put it succinctly: “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Right now in our community there is fear enough to go around, including the fear of MPs to just be there for their people in a difficult situation. So here’s a promise to those government representatives trapped in their own reticence. Visit these workers and many of us from all parties will be there with you and thank you for at least showing your concern in tangible fashion. This is your town too and we’ll back you up for at least being there. We know solutions in such things are expensive, but compassion is free and liberates us from our fears. That mother in the restaurant at least deserves that much from democracy. She needs to be seen, as does her entire family.

Christmas From Those Who Live It

How do you describe a week in which thousands of Londoners pulled together and donated to the London Food Bank in numbers we hadn’t seen before? Jane and I thought it might be best to let some of our volunteers speak for themselves, their wishes and Christmas and their compassion for those who feel marginalized. What they describe is what we all feel, especially in troubled economic times.

To all of you, a deep and abiding Christmas spirit all the year through. Thank you for your friendship and support, and above all for your belief in this country and what citizens can do.

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