Most Americans think of Canadians as their nice northern neighbors, prone to superfluous apologies. Sorry (yes) to burst that bubble, but we also have a deep self-congratulatory streak. Among ourselves we can be smug, extoling the virtues of our kinder, gentler social safety net. These hard-won achievements are worthy of a few pats on the back, sure, even though as in most other nations in the industrialized world, that net is growing taut and frayed.
But there is one place we have long lagged behind: Prioritizing access to food in our social support system. With more than 12 percent of Canadians considered food insecure, it’s a significant problem. Canada has no national school meal program, no specific nutrition supports built into our welfare system, and no food stamps aimed at helping low income people access basic foodstuffs.
For all their challenges and deficiencies, federal food-based social assistance programs in the U.S. have proved an essential lifeline—with one in seven Americans enrolled in the food stamp program (SNAP), 32 million kids receiving subsidized and regulated school meals and half the babies born in the country enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (WIC). The $40 billion the House Republicans want to see in cuts to food stamps—the deepest cuts in a generation—will be a devastating blow.
After 20 years working in low-income communities, I can assure you that those left behind by these cuts aren’t miraculously going to stop being hungry. Poverty doesn’t go away because we wish it would. If these cuts go through, the lines leading to soup kitchens and food pantries across America will swell exponentially with families and children who no longer have access to the most basic food items.
Britain has recently been dealing with a similar crisis as entitlements have been cut and food bank use has increased by 200 per cent. Church-based food banks in the U.K. are reportedly opening at the rate of three every week to try to meet the need.
But this charitable approach to dealing with hunger just doesn’t work. While food bank handouts may tide people over in an emergency, they do nothing to get at the root of the problem: Poverty. The donations offered by most charitable emergency providers are the castoffs of the food system—cheap, processed junk full of fat, sugar, and salt. It’s a health care crisis on a plate for low-income people, already disproportionately affected by diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
There are those who see all the busy work of emergency food providers as a sign that, in the absence of government support, neighbors will help neighbors. While I commend the big-hearted spirit of the many staff and volunteers in these organizations, I think we need to ask tough questions about whether food bank handouts are actually reducing hunger, improving people’s health or providing pathways out of poverty.
In my experience, the answer to all of these questions is no. What they do instead is stigmatize people, divide us as citizens between the haves and have-nots and take government—and all of us—off the hook for tackling growing inequality and its resulting hunger pains.
When I began to understand that the small, inadequately resourced Toronto food bank I ran was little more than a stop-gap measure, and I saw the number of people coming to our door just keep rising, my colleagues and I decided something big had to change. Over time, we built a vibrant, multidimensional space called a Community Food Center that offers not just handouts, but opportunities for our diverse low-income neighborhood to come together to cook, grow, and share food.
Equally important, we created the space for people to advocate for themselves and others for progressive changes to the political and social landscape. Changes like a minimum wage they can actually live on, affordable housing and childcare, and support for the kind of sustainable agriculture that benefits not just the wealthy, but everyone and the environment, too. Today, we’re creating Community Food Centers across Canada as prevention-based alternatives to a moribund food bank model.
Of course, Community Food Centers alone aren’t going to end hunger and poverty. Instead, we need a holistic approach that addresses the full scale of this complex problem, one that marries effective government supports with community-based efforts.
Imagine, for example, if we could redirect the vast sums of money that are currently raised for emergency food distribution—enormous warehouses and logistical networks delivering mostly unhealthy processed food around the country. We could use it to support stable, adequately resourced, and effective neighborhood organizations that use the power of food to both meet low-income people where they are and build the sustainable food future we want to see.
If this collaboration can also channel the exploding middle class interest in healthy, environmentally friendly food into a movement that insists everyone should have a place at this table, we might actually see real change on the food file.
Take it from your nice northern neighbors, food charity will never be an adequate response to the hunger crisis. Not only does it fail to put a dent in the problem, by averting our gaze from the real issue—growing inequality—it ends up costing us all in ballooning health care expenditure, lost productivity, unsafe and divided neighborhoods, and unrealized potential.
Rather than cutting people off government food supports and forcing them into food pantry lineups, it’s time to use our collective power to create greater dignity, equality, and health for everyone.
Photos: Top, The Table Staff. Middle and bottom, Matt O’Sullivan