The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food insecurity

Food Insecure Canada


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.

The Real Story on Canada’s Food Insecurity

Here is my latest Huffington Post piece on the special United Nation’s envoy’s report, released today, on the growing insecurity in Canada’s food system.

Hunger Games – Global Reach

Foresight, a think-tank established to predict future crises, spent most of last year calling for “urgent action” to prevent food shortages worldwide. Hardly anyone in Canada noticed, but at the United Nations, the World Food Program, and other international institutions it set the alarm bells ringing.

Following 18 months of research, Foresight concluded that even a modest rise in food prices would force “hundreds of millions” of people into hunger. Worse still, such turbulence for food commodities would inevitably result in mass migrations, spark civil unrest, and could lead to the rich countries turning on the poorer nations in order to protect their food supplies for their wealthy citizens.

We’ve heard about such warning for a long time – decades maybe – but they arrived in component parts. My first year in Parliament had me involved in a major study on climate change refugees and how they would soon be wandering the world in search of resources. We also heard of world population growth, which though it will eventually abate at some point in the future, will nevertheless see a radical short-term increase. The UN has been telling us for years that water shortages will inevitably lead to higher food prices. And the prospect of rising fuel costs will eventually places some foods financially beyond reach for many.

The Foresight study brought all these various parts together, concluding that, combined, they were “creating a perfect storm in prices over the next 30-40 years.” Any one of these dimensions would prove formidable, especially in wealthy nations where citizens remain reticent to curtail their consumerism and their governments refuse to look beyond their own borders.

This wasn’t any singular, obscure study, but in reality a major piece of research compiled by 40 scientists in 35 countries. One member, Professor Sherman Robinson of Sussex University, stated that food prices could rise by 50% over the next few decades. He concluded by observing that, “the long run decline in food prices is over.”

The report’s final few paragraphs were even more pungent. “A billion people are going hungry, with another billion people suffering from ‘hidden’ hunger, whilst a billion people are over-consuming.” That last group is us, and we’re already starting to feel the pinch in food and fuel prices that will eventually eat away at any gains that might have accrued from the rather flimsy recovery from the Great Recession.

Western nations appear to be losing interest in global trends as domestic financial declines are beginning to be felt. But the big picture is important, if only for its ability to extend into our world through higher commodity prices, significant increases in refugees, regional conflicts, and the rising price of those things that keep our families alive.

All this is just one other way of saying that the hunger games are on, globally and with increasing energy. In a battle to save our own prosperity we have to raise the chances of others. They are linked in ways we never understood before but which are now aggressive enough to focus our minds. Even in the early days of the Great Depression, American president Herbert Hoover attempted to comprehend hunger’s reach:

“Hunger brings not just suffering and sorrow, but fear and terror. It carries disorder and the paralysis of government, and even its downfall. It is more destructive than armies, not only in human life but in morals. All of the values of right living melt before its invasions, and every gain of civilization crumbles. But we can end it, if we will.”

Sadly, we’re moving in the opposite direction, as Western governments, like Canada’s, freeze or lower the very aid investments required to deal with hunger before it reaches our shores. It’s a short-term thinking that will lead to long-term economic crises.

At present we have companies from countries like the U.S., Britain, China, and, yes, Canada, tilling hundreds of thousands of hectares of land throughout Africa. They are investing big-time money, diverting water from needy villages and regions, harvesting the yield, and then shipping it all back to their home countries. The sight of trucks full of food driving past impoverished villages on their way to ports and airports to offload the produce isn’t lost on development workers. All this constitutes the “Second Scramble for Africa,” and it is the worst possible way we can deal with the oncoming challenges. Stealing from the poor to feed the rich maybe worked for a time, but the growing poverty left behind in places like Sudan will soon become ours as well.

Food is a global commodity, not a local one. All of our efforts to protect ourselves from the reach of hunger can no longer protect us. Just ask any food bank volunteer how poor Canadians are faring in a land of plenty. Many presumed this to be a struggle of the survival of the fittest, when in actuality it was just about the survival of the human race. Food and water are staples, and when their scarcity elsewhere can impoverish Canadians here, perhaps it’s time we developed a global approach as opposed to hiding in our oil sands or in our insulated communities.

Hunger Games – Weren’t We All Supposed to Win?

This week sees our 25th annual citywide spring food drive in London. It should have been like old hat but it wasn’t. Twenty-five years is a long time for a food bank that people hoped would be temporary in nature. Well, it’s not appearing transient, and neither are the hundreds of food banks spread across Canada who are now facing challenging futures.

When we started our food bank in the fall of 1986 (we were incorporated the next year), we averaged around 300 families helped a month. Now, our busiest month ever was January, where we helped 3660 per month (9000 individuals). Roughly 40% of those helped are children, and we are seeing numerous new clients who were working only one year ago. More seniors on fixed pensions are visiting our operation, as are students, those with mental health challenges, and those who can’t locate affordable housing.

The future hardly looks any better. In a time of restraint budgets you can be sure that some of the stringent measures will be on the backs of the marginalized. Some economists tell us we have turned the corner on the recession and that we can now begin the process of paying off our debts. But that’s only true for certain sectors. In London, there is a waiting time of 8.3 years for those requiring affordable housing. Young people can’t find work. Small businesses can’t get nearly the attention or perks the larger corporations get for settling into a community. For all of these people, and others, there is no such thing as a recession ended. It’s still here. It’s aggressive. And it has them by the throat.

Is this what we wanted as communities? Weren’t we all supposed to win? Capitalism and democracy were to work hand in hand and produce prosperity for all those willing to contribute, weren’t they? Where we used to make money by manufacturing products people wanted, many are making money on money. More money flows around this country than ever before in our history, but it’s not coming to our communities. It’s up at 60,000 feet – out of reach and increasingly out of touch.

At what point did we as Canadians settle for accommodating poverty instead of alleviated it? When did we reach the stage where thousands in our communities without hope and resources was acceptable? I know we will always have the poor with us, but to that status are added the fabulously wealthy seeking more bailouts, more breaks, less taxes and less intrusion – they, too, are becoming a permanent part of our struggling democratic landscape.

I was in the gallery of the House of Commons in 1989, when every single member in that Chamber voted to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. There was applauding and many tears, including my own. Yet in times of great plenty, with economic booms and money being made hand over fist, we permitted children in poverty to double. I understand some believe the poor will always be with us; but poor children? Really?

Starting today we begin a new series on the “Hunger Games” – not the movie, but the abiding, pressing reality of malnutrition and empty stomachs. These are real things, affecting real people, and having real consequences on our society and around the world.

I ask again: weren’t we all supposed to win? Forget this Great Recession as an excuse. For some three decades poverty was growing among us, curtailing the energies of children, and shattering the hopes of their parents. Our current economic struggles are no excuse for a nation that saw growth like few others for decades. We just lost our way, that’s all. Of course we care for children in want. Naturally we desire to link people with meaningful jobs. Absolutely we want enough food on everyone’s table. Somehow we just didn’t get around to it. We grew distracted by materialism, or subtle prejudice against welfare, or grew weary of the very governments themselves that were required to find solutions.

Well, it’s time to end all that. The hunger games are on and there’s no sense in Canada accepting an outcome where only a few people win. It’s all of us or it’s a country that failed to hold its birthright. Should we permit growing hunger, then we have already lost.

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