The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

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.

Why Can’t Canada Feed Itself?

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NOT EVERY PERSON IS HUNGRY, BUT MOST hungry people are poor. There’s no way around it; a person with too little nutrients finds life an ever-greater challenge. “We have to eat to live,” said Marty Rubin, “and that’s our timeless tale of tragedy.” In the modern West, this is becoming increasingly so.

Speaking to Global News a short while ago, Priscilla from Saskatoon put out the stark choices that consistently drive some to hunger: “If I attempt to eat healthy, bills wouldn’t get paid. And most of the time I’m balancing what’s more important – a roof over our heads or the ability to eat healthy – or even eat three meals a day.”

How can it be that one of the richest nations on earth, and that exports vast quantities of food overseas, ends up in a place where an increasing amount of families can either afford a place to live or healthy food, but not both?

Food bank use across the country never relented, even a number of years after the Great Recession supposedly ended. But there is one subtle though critical development: a larger number of food bank clients are working, many are highly educated. Yet at the end of the day, this still can’t afford to effectively feed their families without cutting other important aspects of living.

According to recent studies, four millions Canadians are living in some form of food insecurity. That’s a lot, and it continues to climb even though job numbers have increased marginally. Historically, Canada has rounded off the rough edges of poverty and hunger through a national form of social safety net, but that net now has huge holes in it, leaving entire families to drop out of security and into poverty.

A compelling recent study by a McMaster University professor, Atif Kubursi, concluded that Ontario’s local food supply would create thousands of more jobs in the province, including some seven thousand in Hamilton, Ontario alone. At the same time it would be better for the environment and allow citizens healthier choices.

One troubling finding of the report, titled Dollars and Sense: Opportunity to Strengthen Ontario’s Food System, is that Ontario actually doesn’t produce enough food to feed itself, though it would easily have the potential to do so.

In a strange twist of globalization fate, Ontario residents prefer the look of imported fresh produce from the Florida area over home grown foodstuffs. And yet Florida residents prefer Ontario’s produce. Go figure. Understandably, consumers have become highly selective in what they want to eat, but that doesn’t mean they are highly educated as to the choices. Ontario fresh produce is every bit as nutritious as Florida’s, but most don’t know that.

Another finding in the study is that, although Ontario imports $20 billion worth of food products each year, over half of that amount could be grown in the province directly if there was just the will to put it together. At the moment, Ontario imports twice what it exports.

Kobursi’s conclusion of all this was revealing: “Ontario is missing regional economic development opportunities to enhance and support the production and distribution of local food.” We all sense this to be true. The Canadian healthy living guidelines on food have been well researched, and if we were to eat according to those recommendations, consumer demand would drive change throughout the province’s entire food industry, creating more employment opportunities in the process. That says something in an industry that already employs over 767,000 people in the province. That’s 11% of our jobs.

What is true in Ontario is frequently mirrored across the country. Somehow we have permitted a vital industry to largely bypass the hungriest of Canadians. And maybe that’s the problem. As singer and celebrity Bono put it: “If you want to eliminate hunger, everybody has to be involved.” At present we have the knowledge and the research to teach us how to reform and revitalize our food systems so that can Canada could feed its own as well as the world, creating prosperity in the process. We need to find that formula and it will have to be consumers that drive it forward because governments, at least at present, show little inclination to tackle poverty in any serious fashion.

Social justice in any nation is vital to its future credibility, but if low-income Canadians only have enough food to last them for a few days, all those aspects of social justice, from housing to health, from employment to equality, have to take a back seat while hunger itself devours their hope and opportunities in just a few days. No nation can survive intact that permits a growing number of citizens to remain in poverty even as the economy supposedly improves.

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

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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.

Cheers For Fears

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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. 

Be It Resolved

broken_promises_by_herrfousNew Years doesn’t quite retain the deeper cultural meanings it used to possess years ago, but it still carries quite a punch.  Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, some of my most vivid memories swirl around New Years Eve, the gathering of family and friends, community celebrations, and, of course, the singing of Auld Lang Syne.  There was a depth of humanity to its words that transcended the moment.  But there was a restrained sadness in its singing, a kind of brooding acknowledgement that the arrival of a new year meant having to deal with some of the more difficult realities of the one just expired.

The words “Auld Lang Syne” could literally be translated as “old long since” and spoke of the passing of time.  They ask a straightforward question, based on the difficult times many citizens in those days had to endure.  The words ask plainly whether old friends and times will be forgotten.  There’s a kind of collective resolution expressed that such a thing won’t happen because, “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.”

But there were other verses in the song that we don’t sing in North America but which acknowledge some difficult community realities.  They speak of how friendships used to be strong and animated but how time had distanced those relationships in the words, “broad seas have roared between us.”

The years of the famous song’s origins, as with many eras since, were difficult times when communities struggled to stay together despite strong outside forces that would seek to undermine their history.  There remain some desperately tragic stories of entire communities that disappeared into the mist as time passed them by.  Always, in those early Scotland years for me, was this ongoing tension between hope and sadness whenever the song was sung that was profoundly collective in nature.

Today, New Years has become far more individualistic.  Yes, we gather, drink and dance, but the sense of coming together for the sake of entire communities has receded into memory.  In the place of community experience has come individual resolutions – the willingness to make promises to ourselves that we hope to fulfill in the ensuing months.  We desire to change and better ourselves, which is a wonderful thing.  And yet such actions often take place in isolation: losing weight, eating better, saving money, being more successful.  It is rare anymore to see citizens coming together at New Years and making joint resolutions to better their collective life, to share in resources, and to fight those broader forces seeking to diminish their community identity.

Recent research in the U.S. revealed that 50% of Americans make New Years resolutions, but that, sadly, 88% never carry them out to conclusion.  That’s over 150,000,000 resolutions that failed.  The research went deeper and revealed why it was the people couldn’t maintain that drive.  Put simply, those making such resolutions failed to understand the distinction between a resolution and a habit.  It remains almost impossible to retain a certain practice all year and then suddenly end it just because you feel like it.  The goal shouldn’t be to make a sudden change but to build “instinctual” habits that will eventually assist us to achieve our target.  Resolutions are always vital, but without the discipline to back them up the brain experiences great difficulty in creating changes in our lives that are sustainable.

This New Years, there will be many like me seeking to place a broader focus on our resolutions.  Things won’t be about “us” but “we” and there will be some hope of winning meaning back into the places where we live.  We will resolve to work more with others, to not be as opinionated or unforgiving, to be generous in spirit as opposed to restrained.  But by February or March the old ways stand a great chance of creeping back in and robbing us of our collective promises to one another.

We stand the chance of forgetting once more that for people like Mandela, forgiveness became a daily discipline and generosity of spirit had become a daily habit.  Our communities could use such a message once more.  As years pass, people who were once friends have divided sharply over a particular issue and never resolve to heal the relationship.  Sometimes such divisions occurred over mere opinions and not any particular actions.  Surely such troubles could be healed, friendships restored, and collective action for the sake of community be put back on track.

If citizens become so political every day that they refuse to congregate and work together because of hyped-up partisan instincts, then our cities will be at a loss.  If everything depends on one political tribe beating another into submission, where is the space left for magnanimous communities or shared purpose?  Instead of uniting us in difficult times, politics has taken on the nature of dividing over partisan feuds.

So let us this New Years make one collective resolution.  Be it resolved that we will create empowering citizen habits that will see us spend the next 365 days healing old wounds, salving areas of historic pain, using social media as an aggregator of commonality as opposed to a mere bulletin board of random opinions and postings that often divide us, and supporting those institutions that would seek to bring us together.  Given the challenges we now face, let’s build those habits of healthy citizenship that can see us resolve actions together that we can actually complete.  Happy New Year to all.

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