Why do Ontarians have to beg for food?

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Mar 09 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Their food banks and community kitchens are overwhelmed. They can no longer feed the hungry.

So Thursday at 10 a.m., hundreds of Anglicans from the Toronto region will rally at Queen’s Park. They will call on Finance Minister Dwight Duncan to put a $100 food supplement for welfare recipients in his spring budget. They will tell him it is “morally bankrupt” to ignore hunger.

“We don’t accept the argument that Ontario can’t afford to help the poor,” said Bishop Linda Nicholls, who will speak at the rally.

“We are an extremely wealthy society. This is a modest proposal, costing less than 1 per cent of the annual provincial budget.”

She hopes others — regardless of religion or ideology — will join the demonstration. She hopes it will trigger anti-hunger events across the province.

Anglicans have a long history of standing with the poor, homeless and hungry. The church has missions in all of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods. Its archbishop, Colin Johnson, has spoken out eloquently for families who can’t afford the necessities of a dignified existence.

But this is a new level of advocacy. It is the first time the Anglican Diocese of Toronto has organized a political rally and the first time many of its members have participated in one. “It’s important to be visibly present,” Nicholls explained.

She hastened to add that Anglicans are not acting alone. They are part of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, which includes Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Evangelical Christians, Mennonites, Quakers, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians and the United Church. Its central message is: “When anyone is hungry while others have too much to eat, when anyone has no shelter while others enjoy affluence, the quality of all our lives and communities disappears.”

At the same time, local churches have joined secular campaigns for affordable housing, decent wages and a healthy diet. In fact, it was one of those campaigns that led to this week’s rally. Last year, The Stop, a community food centre in Toronto’s west end, issued a province-wide challenge: Live on food hamper worth $221 (the amount provided by welfare) for a month. Five Anglican bishops and 400 church members took the challenge.

“When we did it ourselves, we saw how inadequate it was,” Nicholls said. “There were no fresh vegetables, no fruits. It was all pasta and carbohydrates. I could understand why people lacked energy, why they didn’t feel well. I could see how hard it would be to find meaningful work.”

That was the genesis of the “Put Food in the Budget” campaign.

The odds of success: slim at best.

With an election seven months away, Premier Dalton McGuinty is concentrating on holding his middle-class base. His poverty reduction strategy has been stalled for two years. His chief opponent, Conservative Tim Hudak, is even less interested in the needs of low-income Ontarians.

Voters are in a stingy mood. Battered by the recession, the rising price of energy and a host of new fees and levies, they want relief. They are willing to let the hungry fend for themselves.

And religion is a declining force in society. Church membership is dropping. Young people are turning away.

Nicholls is acutely aware of all this. She lives it every day. But she also lives in a church that does not buckle in lean times or fall silent in the face of apathy.

If Duncan disregards its call to conscience, the church will mobilize its members in more communities and enlist other Ontarians who care about hunger but haven’t spoken out.

Still, it shocks the bishop that it has come to this: A rally to beg the government for food.

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