Wealthy Canada can do better for its poorest citizens, UN report says

Posted on March 4, 2013 in Social Security Debates

VancouverSun.com – health – Special Rapporteur finds one in 10 families with young children lack daily access to healthy food.
March 4, 2013. By Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun

The patchwork of government and charitable programs meant to protect poor Canadians from hunger is failing, according to a report to the United Nations on food security in Canada.

Nowhere is that failure more evident than in Metro Vancouver, with its plethora of food banks, waste food diversion programs, soup kitchens and school-based inner city meal programs, say local critics.

Charities, municipal governments and schools stepped up to feed hungry children in the absence of any effort by senior levels of government to take on poverty and hunger in a coordinated fashion, according to Noel Herron, a former school principal and COPE school board trustee.

School meal programs in B.C. are funded by a mix of government subsidy, parent contributions and private donations.

But families that share living space in wealthier neighbourhoods or live in basement suites are often missed by meal programs that are targeted to less-affluent neighbourhoods, Herron said.

Provincial funding for school hot meal programs is directed to the neighbourhoods where need is greatest, but at least two Vancouver elementary schools — Captain James Cook and Thunderbird — have publicly appealed for food from the public. A charitable program at Strathcona sends kids home for the weekend with a backpack full of food, so they don’t go hungry when they don’t have access to the school-based breakfast and lunch programs.

More than 900,000 people are assisted by food banks in Canada, according to Food Banks Canada. More than 90 food banks operate in B.C. alone.

Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the right to food for the United Nations Mission to Canada, will present his report in a public forum and national webinar in Vancouver on Monday, March 4. De Schutter met with officials from all levels of government across the country during a 10-day official visit to Canada last May.

The number of households in Canada that are unable to meet their food needs every day is rising, from 7.7 per cent in 2007-08 to 8.2 per cent (1.1 million households) in 2011, according to the federal government’s own figures, the report notes.

Nationally, one in 10 families with a child under six and more than half of families that rely on social assistance experience food insecurity, De Schutter wrote. Aboriginal households are three times more likely to experience hunger than non-aboriginal households.

The report recommends that Canada revise social assistance rates to match the real cost of food and other necessities, and create a national strategy aimed at eliminating child hunger based on the recognition of food as a legal entitlement, clearly delineating the role of federal, provincial and municipal authorities.

The report notes that Canada has an exemplary record on political and human rights at home and promotes food aid, nutrition and sustainable agriculture abroad through foreign aid programs, but has yet to explicitly recognize the right to food in the Charter of Rights, human rights legislation or case law.

In recent years, cities such as Vancouver and Toronto — not senior governments — have been the engines of change and social justice around food, said Vancouver Food Policy Council co-chair Brent Mansfield.

Nurturing a local, sustainable food system has become a consideration in every aspect of municipal life in Vancouver, from how cafeterias are stocked to zoning, environmental, planning and land-use issues.

“That kind of integration is exactly what needs to happen at other levels of government,” he said.

Mansfield spent Monday attending an information session hosted by the Conference Board of Canada, an economic think tank that is developing a national food strategy in consultation with Canada’s community and business leaders.

“I think it’s really interesting, but I can’t say that I’m comfortable with the (board) taking on a role that really belongs to the government,” said Mansfield.

“The New Democrats and Liberals have talked about a national food strategy, and I hope they continue to push so that this happens in a more coordinated way across all levels of government.”

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