The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

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.

Hunger and Waste

The following is my recently published article in the Huffington Post.

Across Canada hundreds of food banks sent out special appeals over the Thanksgiving season asking people to donate generously. They had clear reason for doing so. Most food banks are facing record demand, as a deep recession that has supposedly ended still leaves its impact all over the country. The London Food Bank, which I co-direct, has seen a 19% increase over this time last year – the majority of that increased demand made up of people who only two years ago were working. Last August saw our highest monthly demand ever in our 25-year history and our highest daily record was only two weeks ago. While many still claim that food banks should remain a temporary solution to poverty, all the indicators seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

Just as we were learning of all these new pressures on the demand for food among the marginalized, news broke of the ironic reality that Canadians waste $27 billion of food each year – that’s $27 billion.  The draft report on this kind of wastage, by the Value Change Management Centre mentions that 51% of that total finishes up as unwanted leftovers that end up in the garbage. The breakdown of the report, which you can read here, states that 18% of the food wasted is due to packaging and processing. Retail stores waste 11%, while a figure just below that (9%) is lost during the farming stage. Even the food industry itself wastes 8%.

If we broaden the issue out to include the United States, things don’t look any better. The U.S. Natural Resources Defence Council says that almost 40% of food in America goes in the garbage each year – a figure proportionally equal to Canada. It appears as though North Americans waste food on a grand scale. The average American wastes 10 times more food than a Southeast Asian. Like their Canadian counterparts, American families throw out 25% of their groceries. And then there are those restaurants and catering services, which together discarded 126 billion pounds of food in 2008 alone. Grocery stores threw out 43 billion pounds of food in the U.S., mostly fresh foods.

Twenty years ago we heard that over 20% of food in Canada was tossed before it ever left the package. Have we learned anything? Furthermore, there used to be a widely held belief that we shouldn’t be wasting food because millions were dying of hunger in places like Africa. Now it’s worse than it ever was.

What exactly are we doing? With the price of food constantly rising, and with millions more being globally added to the destitute poor each year, how can we reconcile our conduct with such developments? We can’t. It’s one thing to say we shouldn’t need food banks, that they should be a temporary presence in our communities, but what does it matter if we are throwing out more food than is distributed by those food banks collectively each year.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who used to say, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” How do we square this in a nation where we toss out $27 billion dollars of food in the midst of hunger? We do have much to be thankful for as a country, yet no population can be truly grateful when throwing out food while children suffer in poverty. A huge gap exists between all those polls that say the majority questioned desire to end hunger and so much waste. It is a credibility problem – for food companies, for citizens, and ultimately for us as a nation.

If it is true that the real cause of hunger is the powerlessness of the marginalized to gain access to the resources required to feed themselves, then the proper answer to that dilemma is not to send them to the dumps where we have just displaced our leftovers. Canada once used to feed the world with our surplus; now we can’t even feed our own with it.

Haughty and Hungry

There was a time, not all that many years ago when Canada was a deeply respected world player, that the United Nations was the venue through which we applied our foreign policy. Unlike our neighbours to the south, who exhibited a certain scepticism toward the international organization, Canada would only sanction international actions once cleared through the Security Council. It was a pattern practiced by every prime minister, regardless of the party in power.

There were advantages to this approach. Such constraint taught us the effective nuances of diplomacy and foreign service and kept us from striking out unilaterally in ways that could disturb fragile peace networks around the world.

Certain vestiges of that approach remain, but our careful diplomacy has now been overrun by the ideology of the “Strong Man” revealed by the current Conservative regime as opposed to the intelligent team player among nations that we were once noted for. This was a big part of the reason why we couldn’t win a seat on the Security Council a short while ago and why Canadian diplomatic influence is on the wane globally.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when a special UN food envoy comes to Canada and is treated to a tongue-lashing by the Harper Conservatives. To be sure, it was unusual for the UN to send such a representative to an advanced democracy instead of the usual developed nations facing so many challenges worldwide. But then again something unusual is itself happening in Canada. In only a few years we have fallen from first place to sixth on the Human Development Index.

The envoy, Olivier De Schutter, came as a friend to remind us that we are slipping in our commitment to those who are hungry. In return, he was treated like a chump by a government that should have known better. Minister Jason Kenney loves to mix it up with this kind of stuff and replied that the UN would do better to head back to the developing world and do their preaching among the starving millions.

Except we do have starving millions in Canada. As Schutter reminded us, some three million of our own people are attempting to stave off hunger and poverty. Almost a million people head to food banks for assistance each month, and of those assisted over 40% are children. I know this stuff, having been a volunteer executive director for a large food bank for 25 years. There is nothing fake about this – it is the cold hard reality of a modern Canada more focused on fighter jets than fighting poverty, on super jails instead of sustainable affordable housing. In fact, if the Conservatives would target just one-half of the funds for the F-35 and the super jails to tackling hunger, the lack of access to food or housing would end not in a generation, but within a few years.

But no, we don’t do that as Canada anymore. We have a government that asks Canadians, not to compare their own standards with themselves, but with Bangladesh, Somalia or some other devastated place across the globe. This is either a sign of a duped people or an arrogant government. We have taken to castigating our historic friends instead of receiving the critique in good faith – as good friends do. By telling the UN to head back to places like Africa to tackle food security, the government implied in troubling terms that 600,000 children living in poverty is absolutely acceptable in Canada, or that we can easily live with wait times of almost a decade for people requiring affordable housing. We not only showed our friend the exit door, we locked in a cell with no key some three million Canadians held in the clutches of poverty.

Kenney should be careful what he wishes for. All Schutter has to do is visit all those developed nations where Canada once used to play a significant part in tackling poverty and see that we don’t nearly care as much about poverty elsewhere either. We froze aid, then we cut it deeper. It will only confirm what he already knows – we currently run the risk as a once compassionate country of selling our birthright – for oil, for international finance, for the financial elite, and for a dollar made from risk as opposed to hard work and innovation.

At the very time that the Harper government is failing the country’s low-income citizens, it is also attempting to curtail the actions of those charities seeking to address hunger as a seriously relevant issue. Do good work if you wish, they say, but be careful lest you be spotted criticizing the federal government for its lack of action. You could lose your charitable status. Not only have the Conservatives turned their back on the poor themselves, they are inhibiting the ability of those ministering to needy families to speak to effective and long-term solutions to poverty. So somebody else had to come in and remind us.

I was brought up in Calgary singing, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” No more. This is Stephen Harper’s land – all the vacuous, ideological, mean breadth of it – at least for some. There is only one way to make this land ours again and make something more fair out of it in the process – take it back. But that will involve actually growing irate at the way our own citizens are being treated, as well as our friends that we have worked with for decades. We stand haughty and hungry. How’s that for a once-honoured nation?

Hunger Games – Global Reach

Foresight, a think-tank established to predict future crises, spent most of last year calling for “urgent action” to prevent food shortages worldwide. Hardly anyone in Canada noticed, but at the United Nations, the World Food Program, and other international institutions it set the alarm bells ringing.

Following 18 months of research, Foresight concluded that even a modest rise in food prices would force “hundreds of millions” of people into hunger. Worse still, such turbulence for food commodities would inevitably result in mass migrations, spark civil unrest, and could lead to the rich countries turning on the poorer nations in order to protect their food supplies for their wealthy citizens.

We’ve heard about such warning for a long time – decades maybe – but they arrived in component parts. My first year in Parliament had me involved in a major study on climate change refugees and how they would soon be wandering the world in search of resources. We also heard of world population growth, which though it will eventually abate at some point in the future, will nevertheless see a radical short-term increase. The UN has been telling us for years that water shortages will inevitably lead to higher food prices. And the prospect of rising fuel costs will eventually places some foods financially beyond reach for many.

The Foresight study brought all these various parts together, concluding that, combined, they were “creating a perfect storm in prices over the next 30-40 years.” Any one of these dimensions would prove formidable, especially in wealthy nations where citizens remain reticent to curtail their consumerism and their governments refuse to look beyond their own borders.

This wasn’t any singular, obscure study, but in reality a major piece of research compiled by 40 scientists in 35 countries. One member, Professor Sherman Robinson of Sussex University, stated that food prices could rise by 50% over the next few decades. He concluded by observing that, “the long run decline in food prices is over.”

The report’s final few paragraphs were even more pungent. “A billion people are going hungry, with another billion people suffering from ‘hidden’ hunger, whilst a billion people are over-consuming.” That last group is us, and we’re already starting to feel the pinch in food and fuel prices that will eventually eat away at any gains that might have accrued from the rather flimsy recovery from the Great Recession.

Western nations appear to be losing interest in global trends as domestic financial declines are beginning to be felt. But the big picture is important, if only for its ability to extend into our world through higher commodity prices, significant increases in refugees, regional conflicts, and the rising price of those things that keep our families alive.

All this is just one other way of saying that the hunger games are on, globally and with increasing energy. In a battle to save our own prosperity we have to raise the chances of others. They are linked in ways we never understood before but which are now aggressive enough to focus our minds. Even in the early days of the Great Depression, American president Herbert Hoover attempted to comprehend hunger’s reach:

“Hunger brings not just suffering and sorrow, but fear and terror. It carries disorder and the paralysis of government, and even its downfall. It is more destructive than armies, not only in human life but in morals. All of the values of right living melt before its invasions, and every gain of civilization crumbles. But we can end it, if we will.”

Sadly, we’re moving in the opposite direction, as Western governments, like Canada’s, freeze or lower the very aid investments required to deal with hunger before it reaches our shores. It’s a short-term thinking that will lead to long-term economic crises.

At present we have companies from countries like the U.S., Britain, China, and, yes, Canada, tilling hundreds of thousands of hectares of land throughout Africa. They are investing big-time money, diverting water from needy villages and regions, harvesting the yield, and then shipping it all back to their home countries. The sight of trucks full of food driving past impoverished villages on their way to ports and airports to offload the produce isn’t lost on development workers. All this constitutes the “Second Scramble for Africa,” and it is the worst possible way we can deal with the oncoming challenges. Stealing from the poor to feed the rich maybe worked for a time, but the growing poverty left behind in places like Sudan will soon become ours as well.

Food is a global commodity, not a local one. All of our efforts to protect ourselves from the reach of hunger can no longer protect us. Just ask any food bank volunteer how poor Canadians are faring in a land of plenty. Many presumed this to be a struggle of the survival of the fittest, when in actuality it was just about the survival of the human race. Food and water are staples, and when their scarcity elsewhere can impoverish Canadians here, perhaps it’s time we developed a global approach as opposed to hiding in our oil sands or in our insulated communities.

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