The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

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.

Dreamless Sleep

girl-reflected-in-windowSo it’s out.  No, not about the use of crack cocaine, or a new revelation on the Senate scandal.

Following months of preparation, food banks across Canada have produced their annual HungerCount report.  Some in the media say it’s good news, that with the economy turning a corner we can finally see a decline in poverty.  That’s quite a stretch, and fortunately most of the media reported it for what it was: another indication of the entrenchment of poverty in the Canadian context that refuses to go away regardless of the state of the economy.

The report concludes that food bank use has declined 7% in the last year.  However, much of that is regionally slanted, with many food banks facing continual increases.  Food bank use went up 25% in the past five years says the report, but in London, Ontario that number is just shy of 50%.  While some food banks might have welcomed a slight decline, London’s numbers increased 3% over the same period.

Food banks have lived through three recessions since their presence on the Canadian scene, and following each recovery usage never returned to pre-recession levels.  Their greatest challenge has been faced in the last few years.  While some economists remind us that we are on the road to recovery, food banks numbers remain stubbornly high and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Increasingly, Canadians are asking why this is so.  Why is it, for instance, that when corporations say that because of competition they are required to slash wages and spending, they are also achieving profits that are at an all-time high?  When such companies say they can’t afford higher wages or the infrastructure costs to run more environmentally sustainable activities, how do they square that with their flushed coffers?  Such success clearly makes it possible to pay workers better and remain in the black, so what’s holding them back from benefitting their community in such a fashion?  These are fundamental common sense questions for which no one is getting an answer.

The HungerCount report provided one very troubling reality.  Of the almost one million people who frequented food banks, 36% were children.  Many continually claim that they sympathize with children in developing nations because the adults and leaders of those nations permit their youngest members to exist in such a state.  They are correct when stating that leaving children in poverty is a systemic problem characterized by a lack of will.  How do Canadians respond to a similar trend in their own country?  Regardless of our ideologies or preferences, none of us desires a future of poverty for our children.  Why then do we permit a situation where kids remain hungry?

Yes, there are numerous solutions being bandied about to provide programs and incentives for low-income families, but wouldn’t it make more sense to take on that one great task that might have the greatest effect: protect and enhance the middle class?  A number of well-intentioned initiatives designed to lift children out of hunger and poverty could never measure up to this one great endeavour poised before the Canadian people, their businesses, and their governments.

It has been said that poverty, once experienced, becomes a prison, a trap from which one can’t escape.  But surely that can’t be so because at one point in our journey as humans we were virtually all impoverished.  Over centuries, we developed mechanisms – legal, economic, ethical, and social – that began the great process of freeing the human race from oppressive poverty.  The largest part of that adventure remains unfinished.  Poverty, regardless of its oppressive circumstances, is mostly a state of mind that refuses to create the conditions necessary for the economic liberation of the greatest number of citizens or simply mindlessly acquiesces to the status quo.  We can’t keep blaming the politicians alone, regardless of what we are enduring at present.  A country’s dreams are established in its people, not just its leaders, and the fact that we continue to accept poverty in such high numbers is merely a sign that we have instead fallen into a dreamless sleep.

One More Time, With Meaning

Today it is.  The London Food Bank launches its 25th annual Thanksgiving Food Drive, running from today, October 4th right through to Thanksgiving Monday, October 14th.  Every year, some in the media ask us to do something new and different to draw attention to the challenge we face as a food bank.  We always take a pass on that challenge because in our view 3600 families a month coming to us directly for assistance is not only a significant news story but a deep challenge to our community as well.

And we’re not alone in that challenge.  Consider this:

  • 412,998 individuals accessed Ontario food banks in March 2012
  • 38.7% of food bank users, or 159,918 individuals, were children (11,737 more children than in March 2011)
  • 44.6 % of all food bank users were women over 18 years of age
  • 174,618 households were served by food banks (9.8% of which were first time users)
  • 42.8% of food bank users were on social assistance
  • 27.3% of food bank users were on disability support 
  • 64.5% of food bank users were low-income, rental market tenants
  • 19.2% of food banks ran out of nutritious food during the month

Across Ontario there are some 120 food banks that work together – sharing resources, compiling statistics, putting forward research and programs for lessening the demand on food banks themselves.

We are rapidly approaching that time when we as communities must begin some serious discussions as to how we will end hunger.  It won’t just be about governments living up to their commitments, but how we handle employment, those on mental health, create more affordable housing (the #1 cause of food bank use), and how we engage citizens to tackle this ever-growing problem in our midst.  And there will be risks involved.  I am reminded of Helder Camara’s observation, that, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Political labels aside, it is time we took up the challenge of asking why so many of our fellow citizens are hungry.  The old days of stereotyping people on welfare are long gone; in their place stands the reality that significant numbers of people coming to food banks were working just a year ago.

Please help out your local food bank if you can.  And let’s begin preparing ourselves for the significant conversations we as citizens we need to begin if we desire our communities to come back to health again.

Watch the two-minute video above if you want to learn details of this year’s food drive.

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