The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food banks

Food Insecure Canada

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IT’S THANKSGIVING WEEK AND ACROSS THE COUNTRY food banks will be holding special food drives to help stock their supplies. For most, the challenges are high. At the London Food Bank, for instance, the demand has gone up 12% over the first eight months of this year over the same time last year. Many of the food banks are seeing their donations in both money and food decline in recent years, even as demand remains high.

All this just means that food security all across Canada remain a precarious thing. Canadians should have access to enough nutritious and safe food to ensure a healthy lifestyle. More than that, they should also be assured of a secure food system that gets quality and affordable food from field to table. The United Nations proclaims this access should be a universal right, but around the world governments and their people are having a tough time of it living up to such an ideal.

It’s troubling, for instance, when we hear from the Conference Board of Canada that 7.7% of Canadian households are “food insecure” – approximately 1.92 million people. That’s more than the population of Montreal. We all know instinctively that a poor diet for kids or adults leads to string of related problems, from diabetes to heart disease, and from poor attention spans to mental health disorders. Psychologically, being food insecure brings on depression, feelings of isolation, anxiety, and, tragically, entertaining thoughts about suicide.

And what of Canadian children in such situations? Currently, 228,500 kids aged 12 to 17 live in food-insecure dwellings. Aboriginal communities are especially challenged by food insecurity for younger generations.

A troubling finding is that food insecurity in households with children is 9.7%, in comparison with households without children (6.8%). The prevalence of food insecurity among households led by female lone parents is 25% – two times greater than among households led by male lone parents (11.2%), and four times that of households led by couples (6.3%).

Why are so many households food insecure? The reasons are many, beginning with incomes too low to afford the essentials of life. Stubbornly high unemployment, under-employment, or poor pay make affording quality food problematic. In addition to income are the high costs of food and non-food essentials. Geographic isolation, especially among Canada’s indigenous communities, makes access to quality foodstuffs difficult. Food illiteracy also has a lot to do with families being undernourished. Proper education around the preparation of foods remains one of the key building blocks for food security. And without access to transportation, at-risk families resort to places like convenience stores, which are woefully underequipped to provide proper nutrition.

It’s likely this is all known by those who read these words. What is less sure is what is occurring to tackle such problems. On this front is reason for some hope, especially at community levels. Food is bringing cities, town, and rural areas together in levels heretofore unseen. Urban gardens, community gardens, collective kitchens, and so many other initiatives are occurring in numbers sufficient to shift the policy preferences of governments. On a deeper scale, there has been a surge in food policy councils, farmer’s markets, food hubs, locally procured food supplies, and rural-urban cooperation mechanisms – initiatives that move food beyond simple charity models and towards a more secure food system overall. And nationally there is a growing movement to press the federal government to adopt a national food strategy.

Will these cumulatively be enough? Not likely. It’s a step to the next level, but to truly battle food insecurity in this country a confluence of initiatives must take place that will form a truly integrated, healthy, and secure food system.

Rises in food literacy, increased supplying of isolated regions, a national school nutrition program, affordable transportation access for low-income families – these and much more must be undertaken if we as a nation are to succeed. Ultimately there will have to occur a comprehensive collaboration between all three levels of government, the food industry, farmers, health departments, research, restaurants associations, and citizen action groups, for any effort to be truly successful.

Global hunger is one of our greatest challenges. To understand its scope, consider this observation from Paul Polman:

“Imagine all the food mankind has produced over the past 8,000 years. Now consider that we need to produce that same amount again — but in just the next 40 years if we are to feed our growing and hungry world.”

But we will never collectively get to such a level until we learn to solve food insecurity in our own communities and across our country. Food insecurity is best defeated by steps and not mere good intentions. We’re not winning that battle at present, which is why food banks are so busy this week. Start there by donating, and then let’s move forward.

Food Bank Myths

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FOOD BANKS ACROSS CANADA HAVE BEEN with us for some three decades now, and despite the fact that they have been highly public and faithfully supported, assumptions continue to be made about both food banks and their clients. Here are some common misconceptions.

Food Banks have a high rate of dependency

That’s not what the statistics reveal. In the London Food Bank, for example, 40% of our clients came only once a year, and 75% came four times a year or less. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, close to half of the people assisted in 2013 at food banks were there for the first time, while an equivalent number stopped using food banks. Food banks are still primarily used for emergency purposes. As poverty increases over time, those numbers could change but for now families use food banks only in a pinch.

Clients collect large amounts of food from food banks

This doesn’t bear out. Again, to use the London Food Bank as an illustration, a family of four receives food enough for four days in a hamper that is worth between $80-$120. This is average with what most food banks distribute across the country.

People can come to the food bank as often as they wish

The majority of food banks help on a once-a-month basis, as with the London Food Bank. The vast majority of clients come only a few times a year.

Clients aren’t required to give any proof of identification

This has never been the case for the vast majority of food banks across the province. Most utilize an interview process where clients have to provide proof of where they live, how many dependents they have, and proof of whether they are on social assistance of any kind.   Eligibility criteria is important to maintaining public trust. This information is then stored on computers from which statistics to provide the public, media and donors are generated. No private information is shared, but the general statistics help Canadians to understand how entrenched poverty is becoming.  Food banks across the country share this information for one month a year in order to produce what is called the Hunger Count – a report detailing food bank use across the country.

People who use food banks aren’t very educated

Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank – Canada’s largest – says one in four clients have a university education or higher. From this number, 17% have some college or university education, 16% have a college diploma, while 13% have a bachelor’s degree. This mirrors much of what is occurring in the job market, where people become unemployed despite having adequate levels of education.

Food banks only distribute food

This is highly unlikely. Canada’s food banks support community garden initiatives, collective kitchens, skills programs, budgeting programs, services for new mothers, community food centres, job application services, and dietary educational classes. The London Food Bank, like many others, while not managing such programs, supplies and assists school breakfast programs, various food models in the community, women’s shelters, homeless programs, research initiatives, and couponing/price matching programs.

Food banks are as diverse as the communities in which they function. They come in all shapes and sizes, but, like London, share in both national and provincial codes of ethics and share statistics, food supplies, and transport with one another. They are attempting to keep up with ever-increasing demands and are only able to do so because of the high levels of support they get from their communities. They are not the answer to poverty, but without their presence in those places where we live, hunger would be far more obvious and widespread. Whatever myths might be assumed about their work, they have become important community partners to the hungry, the media, other social agencies, and numerous community initiatives.  They continue to work with other organizations in attempts to define, track, and overcome poverty itself.

When the Past Can’t Escape the Present

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TODAY THE LONDON FOOD BANK LAUNCHES its 29th Spring Food Drive amid growing doubts concerning this country’s resolve to take poverty, and those mired within it, seriously. Dr. Jason Gilliland, professor from Western University will report at the press conference that poverty and hunger have now become entrenched, not only in our city, but in numerous communities across the country.

This is a difficult spot to arrive at for Canadians, for it effectively moves poverty from being a serious issue to tackle to a permanent class of individuals and families. Effectively, we appear to be coming to an end of what American author E. J. Dionne Jr. calls “the Long Consensus” –  an era where governments from all jurisdictions legally came together to join their forces to battle numerous challenges, including poverty.

In Canada, we call it federalism, which had its foundations established at the Quebec Conference in 1864. It became the basic legal and jurisdictional framework through which the federal government, provinces, territories, and communities interacted and shared resources with one another to face the challenges of such a large nation. Up until the last three decades its strengths were far greater than its weaknesses, resulting in Canada becoming a beacon to the world for the exquisite balance it achieved between social justice and the economy.

Recent years have witnessed the slow dissolution of these partnerships to where we have now reached the point where we are forced to admit that the great nation of Canada can no longer afford to end poverty.

The conditions of federalism were a promissory note to every Canadian. This note was a vow that every man, woman, and child in Canada would be guaranteed the attention of all three levels of government in regards to their welfare and potential. But instead of honoring that obligation, we have been given instead a bad cheque marked “insufficient funds.” This has transcended political ideologies and, because of that reality, every government has failed in the past 30 years to one degree or another.

Author Richard Hofstadtr observed that, “memory is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity.” If that’s the case, then Canada’s rich history is slowly disappearing through a kind of collective dementia. What we built together we are now watching being undone.

Yet all this is transpiring when the wealth generated in Canada has risen remarkably in that same period of time, thanks in part to new information technologies and global reach that now means most of the profits from that growth have gone to a small percentage at the top of income distribution. The result has been financial inequality that has reached troubling levels. It begs a fair question: Why have we – governments, bureaucrats, citizens, media – been unwilling or unable to halt the growth of inequality or to use an increasing amount of that generated wealth for the common good?

The growth of the global economy no longer means opportunity, but “downsizing,” re-engineered jobs. Yet through all this there has been little public protest about the changing power structures of the economic architecture.

The failure of the governors and the governed to protect the responsibilities of federalism, instead leaving us to the fluctuations of the markets, has mean that instead of “opportunity” we have “austerity,” and a re-engineered workplace that functions ultimately for the benefit of those already with great wealth.

Instead of watching over the precarious nature of Canadian federalism, a tendency has grown over many years that caused the power and financial elite to forego at least a measure of their civic consciousness, their sense of ethical obligation to society at large, in pursuit of their own ambitions. For many within this privileged cohort it has gone a step farther with the emergence of predatory attitude towards the rest of society.

This has had a troubling effect on the Canadian dream, especially on those of low-income who can no longer find a way ahead. Those coming to food banks express an increasing concern over what appears to be the withdrawal of institutional support, both public and private. They are experiencing something of a crisis of civic membership, a troubling belief that while the public remains generous in food donations, there is a growing sense that they are being pushed out of the mainstream – a kind of redundancy that leaves them with a sense of hopelessness. They feel that their struggles for individual survival are slowly replacing the sense of social solidarity this country once enjoyed. If the poor are losing hope, can the middle-class be far behind, especially if the current financial trend towards inequality deepens? And just to be clear, the volunteer charitable sector in no way can pick up the slack left when government retreated from the public space in the past three decades.

We had never imagined that the global economy, nor the stock market, nor the profit margin could determine our institutional choices unless we were first consulted as a people and permitted to choose. Politics essentially fooled us, parading federalism’s historic social compact, all the while acquiescing to setting the stage for the new financial order.

We once had a rich Canadian history of a federalism that helped Canada become one of the most humane nations on earth, but that national history now can’t be separated from a financial present run amok. Our national agreements have themselves become unequal and ineffective in the process. Our history is trapped in our present injustice, and the poor are the first to sense it.

A Better Way

FOR A NUMBER OF MONTHS NOW we at the London Food Bank have been holding sessions with various community leaders and those requiring our services to see if there was another way of undertaking our food bank operations, a way that could permit those 3600 families coming to the food bank each month to find quality food supplies closer to the neighbourhoods in which they lived.

What we heard inspired us. Time again we heard people wondering why food bank families couldn’t acquire their groceries where most Londoners went – grocery stores themselves. We have spent months now endeavouring to find ways to bring that about, without numerous individuals and groups in the city cooperating with us in the pursuit of a new model. It will take time and involve numerous community sectors – non-profits, charitable organizations, grocery chains, city hall, and community developers – but we are on our way.

There will always be a need for a food bank in London, to continue helping the 25 other agencies that we provide food to on a regular basis, and to also collect much of the surplus food that often goes to waste.  But for those families who have to come to us directly, we are hoping to find a more equitable way to ensure they get the food they require.

To keep the public mindful that the process is still underway, we’ve produced this short video to say that the effort is still worth while and characteristic of a city that is looking for new solutions to numerous challenges. Have a look at the video above and join the search for a better way. It’s the very least that our clients and the community deserve.

That Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal Thing

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Today is our “BHAG” day, and, if successful, it could play its own small part in helping our city of London, Ontario to claim its own future.  And if it doesn’t succeed as we had wished, it will still represent a real desire in our community to redefine itself along more equitable principles.

The term “Big Hair Audacious Goal” (BHAG) first appeared in the 1994 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, written by James Collins and Jerry Porras.  Its premise was to dream big, go for the gold, in ways that would assure long-lasting profits and success.

We at the London Food Bank are attempting to turn that on its head.  Yes, we have a plan – a huge one – and, yes, we are reaching for success, only it’s not for our own future but that of our community. It is the BHAG of taking a publicly supported agency and transcending it for a community win.

The London Food Bank started 28 years ago as a temporary solution to what was believed to be a short-term social situation.  A recession had crippled communities and various governments and companies pulled back from previous commitments, leaving those communities with more hungry people than agencies were able to feed.  London’s food bank was born during those difficult and challenging years, and from the beginning local citizens and companies rallied to the cause and supported highly successful food drives.  

Back then we were helping about 600 families per month, and the belief was that once the recession ended the larger players would reinvest back into their communities.  Except it didn’t happen and growing hunger and poverty became permanent parts of the Canadian landscape, even during our most wealthy years as a nation.  Our food bank numbers grew until they reached their present 3600 families per month.

It’s a repeated phrase in our town that, “It’s too bad we have to have food banks.”  Except we see it as more than just a mere observation; it’s a wish in our community.  Starting today we are going to make it a goal.

You’ll hear lots in the next while about the London Food Bank closing its doors on the poor or how we just made some kind of arbitrary decision.  Neither are true.  We have decided to work with community groups and the City of London to spend the next six months researching the possibility of providing cheaper food in our various neighbourhoods that will be available year-round and will guard against the indignity of a family coming to the food bank for assistance.  It’s been a desire in our city for years, where numerous agencies have expressed a desire for that goal and our own city council recently passed a food charter to open the door to that possibility.  Steps are underway to establish a Food Policy Council in London and one of its key goals is to provide cheaper quality foodstuffs in all parts of our city.  That’s not new; numerous cities have passed and enacted such plans across North America and around the world.

So why not London?  Yes, we’ve been hit hard and, yes, our lingering unemployment numbers have been dispiriting.  But all these initiatives mentioned above have occurred during those difficult times. Citizens and groups have come together to fight for a future that is their own and not someone else’s ill-fitting design.  The board of the London Food Bank wants to be part of that community innovation.

So, we will spend six months undertaking research with our community partners to see if there is a more equitable way we might help those living in poverty by helping them acquire cheaper food on an ongoing basis – something they can purchase themselves and discover personal empowerment in the process.  If that research turns up some clear possibilities, we will seek to enact that model over the next three years to transition those families back into their neighbourhoods in which they live.  If nothing turns up, then we will continue functioning as we do now.

But the other side of our operation, where we warehouse food that the public and companies will continue to donate and that we give out to over 25 other agencies in the city will continue as usual.  In other words, the warehousing portion will remain, but those families coming directly to the food bank for assistance will now be able to afford it in their own neighbourhoods.  That way the public can stay involved, helping all those other emergency agencies through the London Food Bank.  No family will need to go without because the food bank will continue to help those agencies that provide such needed services.

Look, this isn’t an easy thing for us, and we know we’ll be criticized.  But this is about our belief in this city and its good citizens, and their ability to take care of their own in a more equitable and just fashion.  London doesn’t have to do what everyone else does.  We can innovate our way into a new future.  We concur wholeheartedly with the conclusion of Collins and Porras in their book:

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit.  It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”

The food bank’s goal can serve as a rallying call, a “focal point of effort,” for our robust community spirit, where our “finish line” ends in the dignity of the human family.  It will call our citizens, companies, and governments to a higher level, where we no longer have to say to one another, “It’s too bad we still have food banks.”  It’s the world we want; let’s just create it.

 

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