The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: food

Poverty’s Great Unknown (2) – Hiding in Plain Sight

hiding-in-plain-sight

IN HER BOOK ALPHABET OF THORN, author Patricia McKillip has one of her chief characters ask another: “Do you become invisible?” In reply, the other character says, “No. I’m there, if you know how to look. I stand between the place you look at and the place you see – behind what you expect to see. If you expect to see me, you do.”

This is the way it is with modern poverty; people suffer their deprivations in private, yet they are seen everywhere in every community. They are us, but we don’t really see them. In Canada, we most often can’t be bothered to look for poverty in our midst, but if we truly wanted to, we could spot it – everywhere.

In yesterday’s post we talked about some things we might not know about poverty. Here are some more.

1) According to numerous studies housing affordability is one of the key reasons people remain mired in poverty. By the time rent or mortgage payments are made, little is left to afford anything else. For this reason, affordable housing is key to defeating poverty. Most people don’t realize that it costs more to keep someone in an emergency shelter than it does to provide them affordable housing. Cities could eliminate homelessness simply by investing more in housing.

2) With hunger growing in Canada, so is the amount of food people throw in the garbage. Food Banks Canada says that nearly 900,000 people are assisted in food banks monthly. Yet research from the Value Chain Management Centre revealed that Canadians throw out $27-billion worth each year, or roughly 40% of their food. Just over half comes from households. It forces us to ask a basic question: how can a nation find the will to defeat hunger when it considers it acceptable to throw out 40% of its edible food supplies?

3) Poverty in Canada is likely to increase, not the other way around. According to a recent IPSOS poll, 61% of working Canadians didn’t contribute at all to retirement savings in 2014. To make matters more complicated, the same poll discovered that the ability to keep a steady income is under assault and is listed as a major form of stress for 45% of Canadians. We keep treating poverty as some kind of fixed statistic when, in fact, it’s a moving target, usually drifting ever upward in numbers. In such a context, poverty is far more likely to go up instead of decline. An increasing number of Canadians actually feel they are more prone to falling into poverty’s clutches as opposed to ending it.

4) A startling number of Canadians feel that they have to make a choice between jobs or inequality. The reality is that they are both related and that one can’t be solved without the other. It will be impossible to defeat poverty in this country unless we address the growing rates of inequality. To separate the two, believing we can concentrate on jobs while we ignore the growing gap between the rich and poor is a fool’s errand and a false choice.

5) Perhaps the greatest thing about poverty that we don’t know or understand is that the roots of poverty are to be found in the bankruptcy of politics. Democracy has never been so “poor,” regardless of which jurisdiction you look at.  Democracy is in recession.  Poverty of public spirit and the belief that we can manage our problems is at record lows – a reality that can’t be separated from financial poverty itself.

Those facing poverty aren’t just facing the pitfalls of isolation from a few bad decisions; they find themselves in their present predicament because of the failure of systems-wide policies that ultimately alienate a city from itself, and from those living within it. This is why the poor have become invisible, even though they live among us. But they are there if we but look for them. Once observed, we find that they look surprisingly like us. That is because they are, but it took some knowledge and focus for us to realize it. This is where the fight against poverty must begin: in our understanding that one can’t solve a problem if they refuse to see or organize to defeat 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.

The Seven Billion Kilogram Dilemma

food-in-garbage

WHEN THE LONDON FOOD BANK HAD ITS FIRST city-wide food drive back in 1986, we were told to expect between 40-50,000 pounds. We weren’t fully prepared for the over 200,000 pounds that came in. Those fire stations charged with receiving the donations were swamped and an extra warehouse had to be located to store all those supplies collected over 10 days.

As a city, we were new to this kind of initiative and much of the food was past its due date. We heard from many folks that they just wanted to help and that they just cleaned out their cupboards and refrigerators of items that had been in their stocks for months. It was a lesson for all of us. For those of us leading the effort, we needed to do a better job of communicating what kind of supplies were required. And for citizens themselves, there was the need to be more selective in what they would donate. We learned those lessons and the generosity of the London community has never waned.

Yet I never forgot that experience and how abundant food is in Canada. Maybe that’s part of the problem. In those early years of food banking we learned that Canadians threw out one-sixth of their food without it ever leaving the package. Landfills were full of otherwise edible foodstuffs. Sadly, it’s a practice that has changed little in three decades.

A report released last summer, with support from London’s Ivey Business School, determined that Canadians toss out 7 billion kilograms worth of edible food each year – roughly 15 billion pounds of food in 12 months. In dollar terms, that $27 billion.

The waste happens everywhere – farms, stores, markets, and processors. Yet, over half of the waste occurs in Canadian households. There’s no point in trying to lay blame – we all share it – but the real culprit lies in our eating and shopping habits. We have grown used to have numerous choices of various products and we often overstock just because it’s so attractively placed and sometimes on sale. We desire it to look good and most often select only that perfect-looking item – anything with a blemish can get tossed. We’re just so used to it and there always seems to be enough unblemished stuff. Farmers and others along the food chain often adopt similar patterns because it’s what consumers demand and that’s what drives the economy.

Except it shouldn’t, and we all know it. It’s one thing to grow and process good and healthy products and to eat well, but it’s another to accept a system that is predicated on waste. Habits die hard, and when it comes to food, Canadians have become habitual creatures.

We are also pretty good with numbers, so here’s a telling one. That 7 billion kilogram figure means that we toss out one kilogram of food for every person on this planet. For a nation and a people founded on the principles of social justice, it means it is time once again to live up to those ideals.

Next post: What Can Be Done About It?

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.

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/../../glen-pearson/canada-food-security_b_2807538.html

Identity – If You Eat, You’re In

jpp1168bCommon vernacular says we are “what” we eat. There’s truth in that, but it’s actually how we organize ourselves in the pursuit of food, which all of us require, that can surely set us apart as a community with a unique identity. This isn’t about supporting your local food bank. Instead, it’s about how we’ve permitted our collective identity to be decided for us by a modern food system that is inefficient, dangerous to our health, expensive, and ultimately alienating. How we change that paradigm as a community will largely determine who we are as a people. For if we are citizens blithely transporting ourselves to food stores on the periphery of our city, buying the same products, looking at the endless array of packaging, then ultimately transporting all that packaging to our landfills, we have become automatons – following where we are led.

This seems to be the standard pattern in my city of London, Ontario, but actually it isn’t. Citizens are realizing that how we eat is of equal importance to what we digest. They are figuring out that community gardens are a means of acquiring needed and healthy foodstuffs. Local farmers permit citizens to use land to grow produce for those in need. Londoners are using their influence as consumers to begin supporting local markets that sell local products. And what they are all discovering in the process is that this new food system is actually bringing them together, just as food always has from the beginning.

Consider the town of Tadmorden, England. It had many concerns about the modern food system, just as we do, but they also understood that their community was growing apart, vulnerable to global forces that seemed like a juggernaut. Some citizens got together, traveled through the town, and made plans to turn it into a moveable feast. They used parkways beside streets to plant produce gardens. They even turned the land in front of their police station into part of the local food supply chain. They altered the curriculum of the local high school to include new ideas of food sourcing and school land to make it work.

You can see all this in the video below, but what is so remarkable about it is that local citizens didn’t ask for a study plan, research project, or city funds – they just did it. They didn’t ask for permission; instead, they got local institutions onside and today the village of Tadmorden looks more like a living, breathing orchard than a concrete or asphalt jungle.

This is what citizens do when they grow weary of others telling them how they must order their lives. They live in communities for a reason, visit with neighbours for a reason, and adjust their kids to their environs for a reason.  Our communities are ours to grow and develop, or waste and neglect – it’s up to us.

In the last few weeks I have met some remarkable people who are attempting to bring the miracles of places like Tadmorden about in London, Ontario.  There is only one problem: the establishment isn’t interested – not really. We are surrounded by some of the richest farmland in the world but have somehow permitted cement to become our land of choice. We are asphalting over farmland at the same time as our citizens are breaking up parking lots to make room for community growing plots. It’s all a kind of insanity that reflects poorly on all of us.

Jim Rutten is a new friend of mine. He not only designed a sustainable food security system for a community, he built it and made it work in Cape Breton. Now back on the family farm outside of London, he is attempting to find new ways to bring citizens back into the natural food chain.  Hundreds of other engaged citizens are involved in similar efforts around whole food systems.  I have met apartment dwellers growing produce on their balconies, and building owners growing gardens on their roofs. I have discovered farmers desirous of bring healthier food into the city and citizens willing to travel to those farms to help with the effort. I have enjoyed breakfast at a local market on Saturday mornings with my daughter only to discover hundreds of families doing the same thing in fresh food markets throughout the city.

London, Ontario has a food charter, a food network, and a fertile food base. But the components remain largely separate from one another. Many have waited for the City to bring it all together, giving it resources and profile. They wait in vain. This isn’t about funding; it’s about food. It’s about healthy produce and meats and their ability to draw communities back together in ways that are not only meaningful but which help us to define a new generation of citizens.

Throughout the city I have found people standing at the ready – already leaps ahead of established leaders in innovating around a local food system. It’s time we just started by supporting these champions. Should we coordinate our efforts of how we eat, we will discover that food is the great gatherer, the great empowerer of any community in transition. Look at the video below and tell me it can’t be done. You can’t. It doesn’t require City Hall or government funding. It only needs us, and our ability to remake ourselves, and our identity, as a community.

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