The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

Three Decades Away

My last blog post referred to a model undertaken by a research organization concluding that if nothing is done to alter the present situation that the world will be in a full-blown food crisis within 30 years. Considering that by mid-century global population will be close to 10 billion, it’s not too difficult to envision what a food crisis will do to the poorest around the world.

Almost two years ago a powerful gathering of politicians, NGOs, business leaders, university professors, and scientists got together and developed some long-term plans for dealing with the issue. Most notable were the efforts of Cargill, a multinational agriculture business, and the World Wildlife Fund partnered together to move the issue forward. Key to it all, they concluded, will be the closing if three significant gaps:

  • The Knowledge Gap: The public- and private-sector should develop a real-time global food security dashboard that allows decision-makers to detect and address disruptions to the global food system before they occur.
  • The Productivity Gap: Public, private and multilateral actors must invest to increase agricultural productivity in low-income countries, while minimizing its impact on the environment.
  • The Collaboration Gap: Global leaders must create specialized forums to improve decision-making in times of crisis, introduce coordinated long-term measures, and engage decision-makers from all sectors on global food security issues.

These are important concepts and ideas, but the problem, as ever, swirls around two key problems: who will pay for it all and will all these solutions actually be implemented after two decades of talking about them. Make no mistake: progress has been made. But we can’t inch our way forward on this – 2050 is roughly three decades away. Climate change will alter everything we know but its effect on food production could well be the most catastrophic. Everything from the spread of global disease through bad food to massive deaths through starvation, to nutritional adequacy will have to be faced.

The real issue for us now is not really how we can find solutions but will we? Not all of it is up to the big players. Greg McClinchey, and old friend from Ottawa days, responded to the previous post by noting:

“While population growth is something we all need to prepare for, we also need to remember that we already waste at least 27% of all the food we produce. Put another way, for every 100-acre field we grow, we waste 27 acres of production. My point is that we can help solve many of these problems with some action around our own table.”

That’s a good place for average citizens to start. Another friend, Leeanna Dawne Newton, put change easily within our reach: “If we all tried to take some initiative of sustaining our own selves in some capacity this could provide a solution in part to the impeding food shortage issue.”

These aren’t mere theories postulated by world leaders after meeting for a few days (important as that is), but practical ways of living and returning to the land as our own contribution to this massive global problem. As Phil Harding put it: “Everybody talks about population growth and its disastrous effect on climate change, food security and resource depletion, but nobody does anything about it.”

The time to move on this at all levels of humanity is now – 2050 is just around the corner.

A Crying Shame

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity,” noted Thomas Love Peacock, and in Canada, right now, there is no better example of this than what we do with our food. If it’s true that we are what we eat, then it’s also true that we become what we toss out.

So, it’s only logical, then, that we grow a little troubled and philosophical upon discovering that each year Canadians throw out 200,000 tonnes of food into our landfills – $31 billion dollars worth. That’s $31 billions dollars of lost revenue – all at the same time that roughly 850,000 people turn to food banks for help each month. And it’s troubling to learn that 13% of Canadians lived in a constant state of food insecurity.

Or think of all this in another way: according to Cantech we lose 2% of our GDP each year to food waste. Adding fuel to the fire is Tommy Tobin’s observation, that $31 billion is greater than the combined GDP of the 29 poorest countries in the world.

It seems immoral and becomes increasingly so as we think of the amount of people in Canada who are food insecure. Why can’t we get our act together on this, say through solid food diversion programs practiced by numerous European countries? What does it say about how we value food, those in low-income, or ethical responsibility when 40% of all food in Canada is thrown into the garbage? Clearly we have some work to do – lots of work, in fact.

Fortunately, the National Zero Waste Council announced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy a short while ago. It’s a great initiative but it requires support – from citizens, food companies, government, media, and producers, including farmers. The strategy suggests a national target of 50% food waste reduction by 2030. It also puts out another intriguing idea: use federal tax incentives to encourage businesses to donate their excess good food to charities instead of dumping it off at the landfill.

It’s important to realize that 50% of food waste is generated by consumers directly, so a lot of the needed change can start with us. Companies can enhance their infrastructure to begin diverting their food earlier in the process. Governments can help with legislation and resourcing. It can be a win-win-win.

The arrival of this initiative is welcome, but it comes at a time when we are already behind American and European efforts. There’s a lot of catching up to do, but at least with a national strategy we can now move quickly – if we wish to. Since we say we care about hungry families, and since we maintain that we are an ethical, value-driven people, we must do something.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” Pope Francis said recently. And yet it’s more than that. It also about tossing out the better angels of our nature. We are better than this in our values and in our abilities, but not in our choices. That time has now come.

 

 

 

 

Want to Defeat Poverty? Take Time.

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ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.

We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.

But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.

It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.

And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.

Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.

It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.

We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.

Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.

Poverty’s Problem is Division, Not Addition

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IN ITS OWN WAY, THE LONDON FOOD BANK’S fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien – articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation’s focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

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.

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