The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

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 Waste? There’s an App for That

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WE’VE BEEN AWARE OF THE PROBLEM for decades, have wished some solution(s) could be found, and are slowly working towards finding ways to divert good and nutritious food from landfills. All of the efforts in this regard are driven by a simple ethical question: how can we be tossing out perfectly good food when hunger is growing in our communities?

In reality, a vast array of initiatives is underway around the globe to tackle this dilemma head on. One of the more interesting ways to approach the issue comes from recent MIT graduates Emily Malina and Ricky Ashenfelter. Key to their success has been the ability to divert quality food from landfills as soon as it becomes surplus or redundant.

To facilitate the effort, Malina and Ashenfelter developed Spoiler Alert – an app that quickly connects business with business, or business with charities or non-profits, and effectively makes connections between the surplus and the demand as it’s required elsewhere. In fact, the transactions are sometimes so quick that the deal is struck inside of five minutes.

These two innovators grew troubled that, while some 50 million Americans face hunger, nearly one-third of food inventory goes to waste in America. That’s 20 pounds per person, according the UN’s Environment Program. This is a predicament just begging to be overcome, and many are endeavouring to do just that. Malina and Ashenfelter are attempting to address it at its source.  Soon they hope to expand their efforts from the New England area to all the U.S. and around the world.

Often it’s just easier for food surpluses to just be tossed in the landfill. It’s the least expensive option for companies, especially those looking to externalize their costs off onto someone else, or even the future itself. Stores are often required to make quick decisions about products soon to expire or spoil. Surprisingly, many of those decision makers aren’t aware that there are other, more ethical options. Malina feels that there are also economic reasons for locating better places for the surplus than merely landfills:

“Many people come to this issue from an environmental or social perspective, which is absolutely right, but it also has serious financial implications for food businesses, many of which are dealing with extremely slim margins across the industry. In America, businesses are throwing away $50 billion worth of lost revenue and hauling fees in wasted food.”

That’s a lot of lost capital, and it’s where Spoiler Alert wants to create its greatest impact. The application is designed to remove obstacles to food donations, by connecting retailers, producers, and supplies to nearby organizations for donation, or, in the case of products that are no longer edible, companies that make fertilizer and animal feed. As soon as inventory becomes available, notices are sent out and all transactions are recorded in the app itself, thereby making it easier for donors to prepare tax deductions. The operation offers a secondary market for discounted food sales, provides new revenue streams, and simplifies documentation.

It’s only a matter of time until ethical demand from citizens prompts governments to legislate and provide incentives to divert food from landfills and onto the tables and cupboards of those who are hungry. Europe is already far ahead of North America in this regard, such as in France, where grocers that deliberately destroy unsold goods face hefty fees, perhaps even jail time.

But while keeping good food out of landfills is a noble quest, the ultimate task, especially on a planet already under duress in its attempts to feed billions, is to seek efficiencies where surpluses are greatly reduced and better planning will mean that the world will produce only that which it can eat. Somewhat like some food banks, Spoiler Alert sees itself as possibly working itself out of existence. “If we can get to the point where there is zero wasted food,” Malina says, “I will feel like we have done our job.”

However all these efforts to keep good food out of landfills and waste bins shakes out, it is becoming a global movement driven as much by efficient business plans as ethical concerns for the hungry. There are numerous apps dealing with diverting food available. Spoiler Alert shows what can happen when creative people create immediate connections that can head food supplies off in another direction almost immediately. Food that is good enough to eat is also too precious to waste.

Half the Sky? Think Higher

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WHEN MAO ZEDONG (CHINA’S CHAIRMAN MAO) noted that women hold up “half the sky,” he might have greatly underestimated that figure. Best selling author, and New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristoff wrote a book, co-authored with Sheryl WuDunn, and filmed a documentary that used “Half the Sky” as the title for both. He made his intentions clear at the very outset of both projects:

“So let us be clear about this up front: We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.  This is a story of transformation. It is change that is already taking place, and change that can accelerate if you’ll just open your heart and join in.”

Hundreds of researchers and writers besides just Kristoff have repeatedly noted that economies simply can’t flourish unless women are permitted and encouraged to apply their entrepreneurial skills to their local environments. Nowhere is this more true now than in farming and agricultural businesses.

Recently, the United Nations spoke of how former rural dwellers are now migrating to cities by the millions, but a deeper look reveals that the majority of that great migration are men either searching for new lives, or seeking employment to send money back to their families in rural regions. Whatever the reason, the result is that women are having to pick up the agricultural slack left as a result. This represents, for women in developing countries worldwide and their communities, the opportunity they have been waiting for.

But as we might suspect, there are problems – lots of them, as farming increasingly transitions from men to women.

To begin with, women farmers are frequently deprived of land ownership. Laws haven’t kept up with the changes and an entirely new field of lawyers and researchers are rising up to correct such historical oversights in an attempt to assist women to gain a fighting chance. Today, half of all farmers are women and half of the food grown has come from their hard work. But it could be better. According the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), if women could just enjoy the same land rights as their male counterparts, their combined efforts could lift some 100 – 150 million people out of hunger. But that’s not happening because women can’t own the land they till.

But it’s not just about land; it’s also about animals. Women are greatly limited in the animals they can own, and they don’t even get all the revenue raised from the animals they do possess. We see this in South Sudan whenever we visit and it takes dedicated effort to change the culture over many years.

All this is important because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Women most often have less educational opportunities than men and experience far more difficulty gaining access to seeds, technical information, fertilizers, pest control measures, and tools. That’s a lot to overcome, but they also carry advantages that men don’t. Their understanding of local market operations is vastly superior to that of their male counterparts, and the networks they establish in tireless efforts to feed their families would dwarf what others possess. Combine that seasoned expertise with the tools mentioned above and the developing world would go through transformational change.

We don’t have to venture overseas to witness the distinct disadvantage women face when gaining ownership of their lives is such an uphill climb. Just consider the matrimonial property rights dilemma that confounds our First Nations communities and how aboriginal women can lose a sense of ownership virtually overnight. This isn’t just a developing world phenomenon, nor merely a Canadian aboriginal problem – it is a global travesty of injustice, a lack of political will, and a refusal of many to build legal ownership into communities and countries as they modernize.

Given that women are quickly increasing their oversight over agricultural operations as the men depart to municipalities, it likely is true that the idea women hold up “half the sky” isn’t even close to reality. The task of beating world hunger is now squarely within their opportunity to rectify, but only if the global community fights to win them the rights, opportunities, and the tools to get the job done.

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.

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