Poverty reduction needs more than food banks

Posted on in Social Security Debates

TheRecord.com – opinion
Nov 19, 2015.   By Wendi Campbell and Shawn Pegg, Waterloo Region Record

This week, Food Banks Canada released its HungerCount 2015 report, which shows that 850,000 Canadians access food banks each month.

More than 300,000 of those helped are children.

In Waterloo Region, one in 20 households received food assistance. Half of these households are families with children.

The HungerCount offers stark evidence of the realities faced by far too many people in Canada: the reality that a job does not always guarantee food security; the reality that safe, quality housing is too often unaffordable; the reality that social assistance, disability and basic pension benefits are inadequate to support people who have fallen on hard times.

The volunteers and staff who run community food banks are proud of the work they do to help Canadians put enough food on the table.

Nationally, the food bank network has adapted to changing times by increasing the variety of food available to the people it helps, and by providing services that go beyond the simple provision of food. The network today is radically different from what existed in the 1980s, when food banks first started opening their doors in Canada.

In Waterloo Region, we have a vital community food assistance network of more than 100 programs anchored by two food banks: the Cambridge Self Help Food Bank and The Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

By working together, the network provides a respectful, warm environment where members of our community can receive the nutritious food they need. They can connect with programs that empower them to learn more about healthy eating, budgeting, food preparation and services to help finding employment, counselling, affordable housing and other needs.

While food bank volunteers and staff are proud of their work, as Canadians they are less than proud of the fact that 850,000 people need to access their services each and every month.

They understand this should not be happening in a country as prosperous as Canada; they understand that though they provide an essential service in their communities, food banks are a partial and imperfect solution to the problems caused by widespread poverty and food insecurity.

In Waterloo Region, 33,700 individuals in our community accessed food assistance programs in 2014. These programs, located in neighbourhoods across the region, provided 88,613 hampers in 2014.

Every day of the week, more than 1,500 hot meals are provided to those seeking a hot, healthy meal and a warm place to stay at community meal programs or within an emergency shelter. Our community food assistance network provides an important safety net for the community.

In the short-term, people turn to food banks for diverse reasons — layoffs, a sudden illness, a rent increase that eats into a family’s food budget. In these situations, food banks are responsive, fast-acting, essential. Over the long term, however, it should not fall to the charitable sector to manage the fallout from larger negative economic realities.

Too many Canadians are working in low-paying jobs that just don’t pay the bills. Too many of the unemployed struggle to get back on their feet with inadequate income and training supports. Too many people facing health problems have burned through their savings while in treatment. This is the domain of federal, provincial and territorial governments — and they are falling short.

To address these long-term issues, the HungerCount puts forward four broad policy recommendations:

• Create a basic income to replace provincial social assistance programs;

• Increase the availability of affordable housing;

• Invest in skills training for Canadians most at risk of failing in the labour market;

• Increase access to traditional foods and reduce the cost of store-bought foods in northern communities.

Food banks are watching closely as the new federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sets its priorities for the new year.

They have high hopes — and high expectations — that the most vulnerable Canadians will be among those priorities.
Wendi Campbell is the executive director of The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, and Shawn Pegg is the director of policy and research at Food Banks Canada.

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