The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: hunger

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.

Hunger Games – No Way Out

Budgets are infernal things and in times of economic hardship can either rescue a troubled economy or prolong it. And in a world where governments ever have an eye toward the next election and big business runs on quarterly projections, budgets inevitably have a particular audience in mind to improve their ratings and their fortunes, regardless of long-term consequences.

With the case of the Finance Minister’s budget announcement it’s clear he wasn’t speaking to Canada’s less-fortunate, other than to encourage them to keep a stiff upper lip – the hunger games will continue. For whatever reason, governments continue to justify cuts to the poor or marginalized under the rubric that we all have sacrifices to make if we hope to balance the books. The trouble is those with the fewest resources have very little to contribute to the effort and the cuts have a proportionally more devastating effect.

Just take hunger as one troubling example. This past year saw food prices rise approximately 8% in Canada overall. But the real story is in the trend over the long-term. Consider how these prices have risen in just the last ten years:

  • Chicken – 71%
  • Ground beef – 103%
  • Sugar – 61%
  • Toothpaste – 50%
  • Butter – 50%
  • Bread – 102%
  • Eggs – 68%
  • Potatoes – 84%
  • Apples – 39%
  • Carrots – 47%

These increases have been tough enough for an average family to handle in the past decade of decline let alone a family or individuals living below the poverty line. The recent Ontario budget opted to freeze the child tax benefit as a restraint measure, despite the fact that its proposed increase this year would have provided much-needed relief with cost of living increases. The choice to freeze Ontario Works and Ontario Disability benefits will spell similar trouble for struggling families.

The recent federal budget was deafening in its silence towards those struggling on the margins. The signs of laissez-faire for the poor and hungry were everywhere between its lines. Clearly the budget wasn’t shaped to affect this struggling portion of society. It was the government’s prerogative to take such a course, but, as with any major financial statement and direction, there will be winners and there will be losers. Again, the poor lose in Budget 2012. Canada’s most highly paid executives will still average $6.6 million a year. The average Canadian will receive $42,988. And the poor will remain stuck below the poverty line. This budget didn’t change any of that.

Farmers by the tens of thousands will continue getting out of the business in this country – a reality unchanged by this budget. Urban poverty, homelessness, the decline of mental health supports, the stubborn refusal to establish a national affordable housing strategy – these realities didn’t even garner mention in the document. To trumpet the reality that economic policies have resulted in low inflation is a misnomer. Every family is feeling the pinch of seeing prices on things like food and gas that they use each day continue to escalate, with warnings that this trend will only continue.

For those who are hungry, Jim Flaherty’s budget reminded them to just get used to those pangs, as when he instigated budgets as Ontario’s finance minister that saw food bank numbers skyrocket within months. Seniors frequenting feeding agencies is now expected to escalate as a result of budget changes. More and more clients are visiting the country’s food banks that were working only a year ago. The entire Canadian economy created 14,100 jobs since July of last year, yet Flaherty’s budget will eliminate 19,200 jobs with one stroke of his very sharp pencil. Many of those families will face the one choice they never dreamed of having to make – visit a food bank to feed their kids.

In this past year, food prices globally rose an astonishing 37%, and with fuel prices consistently on the rise we are being warned in this country about a steep escalation in the costs of food. Was there a plan in the budget for this? No? Anything about adopting progressive policies on alternative energies that would eventually lower food prices? Again, no.  Any federal funds to support small farms, community gardens in communities, infrastructure repair between cities and their rural surrounds? Ne’er a mention.

And so the hunger games continue. In a land of such abundance that has grown food that once fed half the world, we have just passed a budget that says we can now no longer feed our own. The hunger games are on, with a riveting plot between the hunter and the hunted, the full and the famished.

Dan Bennett once said that, “The trouble with a budget is that it’s hard to fill up one hole without digging another.” Budget 2012 didn’t so much dig a new hole as it made what presently exists deeper and all the more impossible to climb out of. This was a budget that chose the affluent over the anguished, the moneyed class over the marginalized, the hoarders over the hungry. This isn’t a best-selling book, or even a high-grossing film. It’s the reality for millions of Canadians, 40% of whom are children.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland once said, “An important lever for sustained action in tackling poverty and reducing hunger is money.” Budget 2012 just ensured that the money is heading in the opposite direction.

Hunger Games – Weren’t We All Supposed to Win?

This week sees our 25th annual citywide spring food drive in London. It should have been like old hat but it wasn’t. Twenty-five years is a long time for a food bank that people hoped would be temporary in nature. Well, it’s not appearing transient, and neither are the hundreds of food banks spread across Canada who are now facing challenging futures.

When we started our food bank in the fall of 1986 (we were incorporated the next year), we averaged around 300 families helped a month. Now, our busiest month ever was January, where we helped 3660 per month (9000 individuals). Roughly 40% of those helped are children, and we are seeing numerous new clients who were working only one year ago. More seniors on fixed pensions are visiting our operation, as are students, those with mental health challenges, and those who can’t locate affordable housing.

The future hardly looks any better. In a time of restraint budgets you can be sure that some of the stringent measures will be on the backs of the marginalized. Some economists tell us we have turned the corner on the recession and that we can now begin the process of paying off our debts. But that’s only true for certain sectors. In London, there is a waiting time of 8.3 years for those requiring affordable housing. Young people can’t find work. Small businesses can’t get nearly the attention or perks the larger corporations get for settling into a community. For all of these people, and others, there is no such thing as a recession ended. It’s still here. It’s aggressive. And it has them by the throat.

Is this what we wanted as communities? Weren’t we all supposed to win? Capitalism and democracy were to work hand in hand and produce prosperity for all those willing to contribute, weren’t they? Where we used to make money by manufacturing products people wanted, many are making money on money. More money flows around this country than ever before in our history, but it’s not coming to our communities. It’s up at 60,000 feet – out of reach and increasingly out of touch.

At what point did we as Canadians settle for accommodating poverty instead of alleviated it? When did we reach the stage where thousands in our communities without hope and resources was acceptable? I know we will always have the poor with us, but to that status are added the fabulously wealthy seeking more bailouts, more breaks, less taxes and less intrusion – they, too, are becoming a permanent part of our struggling democratic landscape.

I was in the gallery of the House of Commons in 1989, when every single member in that Chamber voted to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. There was applauding and many tears, including my own. Yet in times of great plenty, with economic booms and money being made hand over fist, we permitted children in poverty to double. I understand some believe the poor will always be with us; but poor children? Really?

Starting today we begin a new series on the “Hunger Games” – not the movie, but the abiding, pressing reality of malnutrition and empty stomachs. These are real things, affecting real people, and having real consequences on our society and around the world.

I ask again: weren’t we all supposed to win? Forget this Great Recession as an excuse. For some three decades poverty was growing among us, curtailing the energies of children, and shattering the hopes of their parents. Our current economic struggles are no excuse for a nation that saw growth like few others for decades. We just lost our way, that’s all. Of course we care for children in want. Naturally we desire to link people with meaningful jobs. Absolutely we want enough food on everyone’s table. Somehow we just didn’t get around to it. We grew distracted by materialism, or subtle prejudice against welfare, or grew weary of the very governments themselves that were required to find solutions.

Well, it’s time to end all that. The hunger games are on and there’s no sense in Canada accepting an outcome where only a few people win. It’s all of us or it’s a country that failed to hold its birthright. Should we permit growing hunger, then we have already lost.

Tripling It Up

The kind folks at Harrison Pensa, a prominent London legal firm, came up with an interesting concept. Anyone who clicked “like” on the firm’s Facebook page was pleased to discover that one pound of food would be donated to the London Food Bank as a result. Overall, the campaign raised almost 1,000 pounds of food.

Or so they thought. Jodi Simpson was the organizer from Harrison Pensa, and she agreed to meet with Jane and I, along with Josh from the food bank, at the No Frills store on Southdale and Montgomery. We were all in for a surprise. Store manager Bob Rundle took the money raised by Jodi and the others and turned it into $3,000 worth of quality food supplies.

This is what you get when you combine an extremely generous firm, a store manager dedicated to those doing without, and an agency like the food bank that can distribute the goods to families in need. Just like community compassion itself, the results of people combining their dedication is often greater than the sum total of all the parts.

Have a look at the video below, where you’ll see Jodi and Bob, cooperating in a way that pulled together a grocery store and a legal firm in a way that made a difference. Special thanks to both, not only for the generosity, but for the example of fine corporate compassion.

On Being Seen

“Will we be seen, by others I mean?” I looked by at the man who had just asked the question, detecting the veiled fear in his gaze.

He is one of the workers locked out of the ElectroMotive plant in London and worry over his family’s future grows with each passing day. It was actually his wife who had phoned me, asking if I would meet the two of them at a small restaurant near the plant itself. She had been pressing her husband to make that call for days, but when he just couldn’t do it she took the initiative for the sake of their two kids. They wanted to talk about how they would access the food bank because that time was drawing near. Their emergency pay during the lockout was slightly over $200 a week and they had no idea how to pay the mortgage or maintain the payments on their van. Worse still, they were running out of ideas of how to feed their young children.

What would you say to them? How would you handle it, or try to provide hope in what is clearly at deeply painful situation? He was rightfully worried about being seen by others when they came to our building. The two of them were going through the process of middle-class decline and degradation. The husband and father wouldn’t look at me, and why should he? Decisions about his life were being made by some CEO living in another country. It was his wife’s courage, brought on by concern for her family, that prompted the meeting.

I went through the prospect of how things would proceed at the food bank, reminding them that they weren’t the first of the workers to approach me in this regard as the food bank’s director. I hugged her in the parking lot and she wouldn’t let go, apologizing for putting me in this situation. When I shook the man’s hand, he finally raised his eyes to me with a look I still can’t determine. “Thanks man, for being there for my kids,” was all he said.

Like it or not, that look caused a mild fear in me. It wasn’t alarm about whether we would have enough resources at the London Food Bank to help folks like this – the London public is notoriously generous. No, I felt the fear, and even a bit of nostalgia, at witnessing the decline of a way of life, of the passing of the progressive middle-class.

One of the things that really irked the wife was that government MPs had purposefully kept away from the workers. She couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps it’s time to concur that she has a point. Three of the four MPs in my community are Conservative – a critical mass of political representation that should clearly carry some clout. There have been criticisms by many this past week concerning the detached nature of the government MP’s comments on the situation.

I know two of the three government MPs and they are good folks. But they’re facing their own lockout – the inability to reach out to those who elected them. What keeps them from at least visiting the workers? Is it fear of reprisal? Fear of the PMO? Or just fear of their inability to actually find a solution? To watch them continue to portray the situation as merely as a provincial problem is something painful to witness. This isn’t about jurisdiction but a community in pain and confusion. It’s not like the recent election, where they refused to attend debates and face the voters. That was about citizens who just didn’t care enough about politics anymore to vote. The MPs secured their victory through the demise of democracy. This is different. It’s about humanity, about recognizing pain in the community and being there for those going through it, regardless of whether you can do anything about it or not. It’s about caring for your neighbour, not protecting your position.

It remains a remarkable thing to behold, when hundreds or perhaps thousands are visiting the workers with various forms of encouragement, but federal representatives refuse to follow their lead. No wonder federal politics seems so irrelevant at present. They could have accomplished more by spending $50 for coffee and taking it to the line than by blaming the province.

Aristotle put it succinctly: “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” Right now in our community there is fear enough to go around, including the fear of MPs to just be there for their people in a difficult situation. So here’s a promise to those government representatives trapped in their own reticence. Visit these workers and many of us from all parties will be there with you and thank you for at least showing your concern in tangible fashion. This is your town too and we’ll back you up for at least being there. We know solutions in such things are expensive, but compassion is free and liberates us from our fears. That mother in the restaurant at least deserves that much from democracy. She needs to be seen, as does her entire family.

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