The holiday season is just around the corner in Canada. In the spirit of the holiday season many Canadians will donate time and food to various charities, including soup kitchens and food banks. In these economically trying times food bank use is on the rise in Canada. Hunger Count 2012, an annual report by Food Banks Canada, shows that 96,000 people in British Columbia used a food bank this past March. This represents a 23 per cent increase since 2008, at the height of the recession. Another troubling statistic is that half of households using food banks have children. Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries Canada is still struggling to feed its population. How this has been allowed to happen?
Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur for the right to food, visited Canada in spring 2012. His visit to Canada marked his first to a developed country. In Canada 1 in 10 households with a child under 6 is food insecure, while in total 800,000 households do not have secure access to food, totals that Olivier De Schutter says are unacceptable in such a wealthy country. Food security is characterized by access for all people at all times to sufficient food for an active and healthy life. Food insecurity occurs if any of these conditions are not met. Recognizing food as a basic human right represents a shift from the charity model embodied in food banks.
Despite recognizing that food is a basic human right in numerous international treaties, the Canadian government has failed to ensure its people have access to nutritious food. Evidenced by the proliferation and institutionalizing of food banks, which were originally designed as a short term emergency response for families who have “fallen on hard times,” Food bank use nearly doubled between 1989 and 2001, and has shifted the policy debate from one of human right to charity. Charity-based programs, such as food banks, are based on benevolence and let the government off the hook for their responsibility; whereas rights-based approaches to food policy are based on entitlement, participation, and empowerment.
While the federal government has been relatively absent in upholding the right to food in Canada, there are community groups that have taken the matter into their own hands. The Stop, a community food centre in Toronto, has been praised for its proactive approach to fighting hunger and food insecurity. The Stop includes a food bank, and while acknowledging it as a band-aid solution, it also serves as an entry point for broader participation within the food system. The Stop food bank ensures that culturally appropriate, local and healthy foods are prioritized. The community food centre also includes a farmers market, community kitchen, legal aid, health care services, a children’s after school program, and adult education opportunities. The Stop is attempting to bring their model to the national level, working with established organizations across Canada, to build food centers that are appropriate in the local context. The organization’s mission is to put itself out of work, and is based on the foundation of participation and social justice.
While community organizations play a major role in combating food insecurity in Canada, it is an uphill battle without the support of government. It is up to the current federal government to implement a policy framework that clarifies the responsibilities of all levels of government in terms of the right to food, and engage and support established citizens groups already working in communities. It is up to all of us to pressure government into bringing the right to food home to Canada. Continuing the conversation with friends and family, getting involved in social justice and food security groups in your community, and discussing the matter with your local government representatives are all ways that you can get involved.
In Canada, hundreds of thousands of people will rely on food banks this December. Food Banks often anticipate heavy donations over the holiday season, and currently they are still needed to provide families with sufficient food. If you choose to donate to a food bank this holiday season, cash donations are better received than food donations. Cash donations allow the food bank to ensure food is nutritious, good quality, not expired, and allows them to provide families with Christmas hampers including perishable items. Check with your local food bank prior to donating.
You can reach the McBride Food Bank at 250-569-3225
You can reach the Valemount Food Bank at 250-566-4858