What if the little old ladies who run the neighborhood church food pantry rebelled? What if they said “we’re 70 years old, we’ve been feeding people for 20 years, and hell if we want to do it for another 20?” What if they demanded that the government reduce the incidence of poverty so that food pantries don’t need to exist in the first place?We're thirty years into a slow-motion famine in Canada. And what's worse, it is a famine that was planned for, and brought about by, our own government in order to funnel more money into the pockets of the 1%. They knew what they were doing, they decided to do it, and they were amply warned when they did it. But no member of the Mulroney government (or any of those that followed without reversing the policies) will ever be brought to bar to answer for the destruction and death their policies have caused.
Hard to imagine? Well, that’s exactly what has happened in the province of Ontario. With the support of an experienced community organizer, volunteers from emergency meal programs, and food banks (what we call a food pantry in the U.S.) have decided to form a “union.” They’re calling it Freedom 90, a spoof on the “Freedom 55” financial planning advertisements that promise the good life to Canadians who work hard and invest their savings wisely, so they can retire by 55.
Tongue in cheek, yet deadly serious, these volunteers want to “retire” by the time they hit 90. They are tired of the perpetual emergency of having to provide free food boxes every week for the past two decades, but are compelled to continue because of the need they see in their communities.
Food security is thought (viz. Watts and Bohle in The space of vulnerability: the causal structure of hunger and famine Progress in Human Geography 17:43-67.) is a function of elements: the exposure to a risk or hazard, the capacity to adapt to this hazard, and the potential of the problem to have severe consequences. While most threats to food security come from natural hazards--lack of rainfall, global warming, desertification-- we don't expect the hazard to be caused by our own government. Particularly not in a "democracy" such as ours. But that is exactly what the neo-liberal policies pursued under Mulroney et al. have done. Food banks sprang up immediately as the Mulroney government attacked income re-distributive programmes in Canada. And they have never gone away.
Two books I've read this past month (one of which, The Stop: How The Fight For Good Food Transformed A Community And Inspired A Movement, is about exactly this problem with food banks still existing) have used the same story to illustrate their point: One day a man comes out of his house near the river and sees a baby floating by. Immediately, he calls for his family and leaps into the river to rescue the child. His family rouses the neighbours and when he brings the baby to shore, the people quickly feed and clothe it and find a family willing to take the baby in and raise it. The next morning, the man spots another baby in the river, and then another. Very quickly the town is overwhelmed with trying to rescue all the babies floating by. The people dry and clothe and feed the babies, but it takes more and more of them to do all the work. One day a harried rescuer looks up from her work with the babies and says "Shouldn't someone go up the river and find out who is casting all these little ones to their certain deaths?" Everyone around her agrees, but they very quickly realize that they can't spare anyone from the work of saving babies to go upriver.
This is what happens when the crisis has been going on for thirty years; there's no one to take a look at the root cause. The difference here is that when the Mulroney government decided to begin enacting the Chicago School policies that destroyed economies in South America, warnings were heard across the county. Removing support for social housing, pushing health-care costs--particularly mental health care--down on provinces, pursuing free trade agreements, allowing the unemployment rates to rise, all these policies, it was warned, would devastate Canadian society. And they did.
Canada's first food bank opened in Edmonton in 1980. Very quickly, other food banks sprang up across Canada--in every city, on university campuses, even in small towns and rural areas. Food distributors embraced them--it was a great way to avoid the costs associated with trashing food. Plus, you scored social responsibility points. And, at year end, there was a tax write down.
As the prevailing opinion was "any calorie is a good calorie," food banks were given loads of processed foods. At the Rainbow Kitchen, the second-generation food re-distributor where I volunteer, we still see these products. Particularly items made with soy protein--like mock chicken cutlets and such. But we also know that these types of products are a problem, not a solution. But the Kitchen's goal is to provide one hot, home-made meal to everyone who walks through the door. And we try to do it without resorting to food we wouldn't want to eat.
The "any calorie is a good calorie" mindset endures--even at the Kitchen--but it's wrong. If it was right, we'd simply pass out cupfuls of sugar at the door and send people on their way.
The problem is not a lack of food--we waste between 40 and 50 percent of the food we dedicate to domestic consumption in Canada. The problem is more that food is not seen as a right, but as a commodity. Michael Moss details the enormous pressures on the food system by the profit-maximizing behaviour of the trans-national corporations that own the food system in his recent book Sugar, Salt, Fat.
There is no reason to have food banks in Canada. That's period, full stop. No reason. Food banks are, like the Rainbow Kitchen, symptoms of a disease, not a treatment.
Every hungry person in this country is, at heart, a social justice issue. And a condemnation of neo-liberal bullshit. Benefits, it was claimed, would "trickle down" from the wealthy to the poor. Instead, the benefits have poured upwards in a torrent. And while there has been some progress made on world poverty, it has come with the conversion of large swaths of the developed world into third-world sacrifice zones--as Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco so ably documented in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
Without a formal, structured change to the political system, there will be continued unnecessary starvation in this country. An end to hunger requires a social revolution, an extraordinary change in attitude among the population. We must become aware of the lies we're being told, appalled by the acts being perpetrated in our names, and committed to reform. There is no single, perfect answer to the slow-motion famine, but change begins with anger converted to action.