October 17, 2014 was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and for the second year in a row the Dignity for All Campaign organized Chew on This! At 45 events in 36 cities across Canada, food bank workers and anti-poverty advocates joined together to call for a poverty elimination plan. Volunteers passed out lunch bags with an apple, a fridge magnet, and a postcard to be sent to the Prime Minister. The postcards called for systemic change to address the underlying causes of hunger and poverty for the 833,000 people in Canada who use food banks each month and for the millions of others struggling to get by.
In Sarnia, ON, at the annual Stand Up Against Poverty Rally organized by Sarnia’s Poverty Reduction Network, students from the local college, members of the network, local politicians (including the mayor), and interested citizens gathered. By their presence, they demonstrated that there is poverty in Sarnia and a certain number of its citizens, including children, go hungry on a regular basis. The group handed out 100 Chew On This! bags and collected signatures for a petition.
The Sarnia & Lambton County’s Nutritious Food Basket survey compares the lowest prices of 67 food items at nine local grocery stores. According to the survey, it costs just over $835 per month to meet a “nutritionally adequate” diet for a family of four. That total represents a 7.8 per cent increase from last year. The cost of nutritious food and rent leaves some Lambton County residents without enough remaining income to pay for other basic needs such as transportation, utilities, household and personal care items, childcare, clothing, school supplies, and medication. When money is tight, many residents struggle to make ends meet by cutting their food budget.
Food banks were started in Canada in the early 1980s as a temporary way to address hunger, but they were never intended to be a permanent measure. Most of us are used to them being a part of our communities and we donate food, dollars, and perhaps volunteer hours as our response. The high levels of donations and volunteer hours speak strongly to the compassion and caring of many Canadians as well as our deep sense of social responsibility to others.
But as food bank use continues to grow, communities are finding it harder to meet the real needs of their citizens. If food banks, soup kitchens, and other frontline agencies across the country were to shut down tomorrow, poverty and hunger would become much more visible. These types of charity are necessary right now, but they are not an answer for the long term. We need to go beyond charitable acts and recognize that access to healthy food is a human right.
Why do we think it is okay to fill a paper bag with food items as a donation a few times a year? Why do we think it is okay that some of our community’s citizens have to do their shopping at a food bank and eat some of their meals at a soup kitchen? Grocery stores and restaurants should be options for us all.
Jane Roy, Co-Executive Director of the London (Ontario) Food Bank said, “If people fall into hard times and are really in need, we shouldn’t put them on a bus and bring them to a warehouse kind of model, an industrial scale model, where they can come to us, pick up their food, get back on the bus and go back home. That is not what a community is.”
There are better ways to address poverty and hunger in a rich country such as Canada. But the federal government isn’t taking poverty seriously; they don’t even think that poverty is their jurisdictional responsibility.
Many of the most effective instruments for fighting poverty (income security payments, tax benefits, pensions, and vital funding for provincial/territorial health and social service programs) are controlled by the federal government. In the last five years alone, the United Nations, the Senate, and the House of Commons have all called for the creation of a national strategy to address poverty. And yet, Canada still has no such plan.
Many Canadians expect more from our federal government. Charity is not a sustainable or dignified answer to poverty. Justice is.