Food Banks Report Calls for Systemic Change

11-6-13

Yesterday marked an annual event in the Food Banks Canada calendar – the release of their annual Hunger Count report.  Pulling in data from their network of 3,000 food centres, the numbers are an example that the recession has not abated for many living in low-income, and thousands who are in need of food.

This year Food Banks Canada calculated that each month 833,098 individuals are using food banks across the country – 23% above pre-recession levels.  Half of the users are families with children, 11% identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit, and another 11% are recent immigrants.  A full 12% have jobs, and 5% were recently employed.  What these  numbers tell us is that our current system of support is failing.  That a ‘job plan’ is not a poverty plan and people are finding themselves in desperate need for basic goods, such as food.

This is not a new situation.  Poverty numbers for years have pointed to 3-4 million people who are struggling, with particular emphasis on vulnerable groups such as Indigenous populations, recent immigrants, lone-parent mothers, and seniors.  More recently, with attention put on wages (particularly in Ontario where a minimum wage review process is underway) it has been noted that full-time minimum wage jobs leave a single person 21% below the poverty line.

One interesting point at the front of the report is that food charity has been around longer than food banks.  The report attempts to suggest that though food banks are a relatively recent arrival in Canada, the idea of food charity is long established in Canada. Presumably this is to insinuate that food banks are here to stay. We disagree.  It’s one thing for a community or church to band together to help a few families in need every so often as was the case. It’s quite another to take a decision that a country’s people are so in need that every major city requires many food banks, to service close to a million people in need every month.  The bottom line is that we have an urgent problem that has moved far beyond an emergency here or there to a systemic problem requiring systemic solutions.  In fact, the Hunger Count report ultimately comes to this conclusion, offering up 5 recommendations to address systemic poverty.

What Food Banks Canada and other anti-poverty groups such as CWP have been saying for years is that there needs to be more support upstream at the government level.  Social policy is not reflective of the needs of today’s low-income population.

Acknowledging this, the report recommendations aim to address the root causes of poverty.  Some of these recommendations are in line with those made in a final report by Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, following his mission to Canada in May 2012. Considering the advice of the Special Rapporteur, two of the recommendations stand out:   one that focuses on the need for long-term federal funding for affordable housing, and the other which calls for ‘revolutionary’ change to the social assistance system, which essentially traps people in poverty in all provinces/territories.  These are concrete policy changes that would significantly reduce the number of people living in poverty, the depth of poverty people experience while also reducing costs to the health care and criminal justice systems (see the Cost of Poverty section of our website).  They are also supported by de Schutter who made similar recommendations in his final report.

The other recommendations lack clarity.  The report’s call for social investment in the North to help with food security is welcome, and in line with the UN Special Rapporteur’s advice to do more to ensure affordable food is available in the north. However, further description as to what this means would have been welcome to better understand the relationship between social investment and increasing food security.  In northern Canada food insecurity is at critical levels; prices for food, housing and electricity are outrageous leading to 57% of households facing food insecurity.  Greater support for northern and remote communities and the right to food could assist in encouraging significant policy change.

Recommendation 3 & 5 look at employment supports; an important aspect of reducing the number of working poor individuals in Canada.  Recommendation #5 suggests an increase to federal support to provincial/territorial programs to assist with low-wage and temporary jobs.  If this support comes through the current Economic Action Plan, one would worry about the rise in precarious employment that has been a trend since the beginning of the recession when this plan was launched.  Just today a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development noted that levels of precarious work and work that keeps people in poverty is higher in Canada than the OECD average.  This report was looking at 11 measures of well-being and also remarked that while Canada may be doing well with regards to personal safety, overall life satisfaction, and good health, the level of inequality continues to grow.

A more robust recommendation would have included support for living wage policies.  Another recommendation made by the UN Special Rapporteur.  The living wage takes into consideration costs of living in a particular region (looking at a conservative bare bones budget) and calculates what a family of four would need to earn to stay above the poverty line. It does not include support for debt payment or savings.  The best part about this policy is that is also takes into account the government programs that would support that family (ie: tax transfers, housing supports).  It makes it clear that if business and government work together, people can earn a decent living and move out of poverty.

Hunger Count 2013 reminds us that much work remains to be done to solve one of the most significant social problems facing this country and to fulfill the human right to food.  Solutions must involve all levels of government, business, community, and most importantly, those people experiencing poverty.  Kudos to Food Banks Canada for calling for action to address the root causes of poverty. Indeed without such action food insecurity will continue to be a feature in the charitable landscape.