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Food banks part of the problem, says UBC prof

What was intended as a stopgap measure 30 years ago now permanent
food bank
A growing contingent of academics and food security activists are calling for more stable and long term solutions. File photo Dan Toulgoet

As the Christmas season approaches, the pressure to donate to the food bank ramps up with schools, workplaces and retail outlets requesting cash or non-perishable items to help the approximately 94,000 people a month —almost 30 per cent of whom are children — fed by food banks in B.C.

But is reaching into the pantry for that can of beans or packet of pasta really solving the hunger problem?

A growing contingent of academics and food security activists are calling for more stable and long term solutions.

Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the UBC school of social work, argues food banks have become part of the problem rather than the stopgap they were meant to be when they sprang up 30 years ago at the height of a deepening recession. He said they have become a permanent way of dealing with poverty that lets governments, corporations, and donors, off the hook.

If Food Banks Canada, which makes recommendations of the provincial and federal government in its latest report Hunger Count 2013, really wanted to end hunger, Riches argues, it would be organizing protests in the streets, but instead it keeps quiet to avoid upsetting corporate sponsors and government.

“We need to change the conversation away from one of rights to charity to one of rights to food,” Riches said. He argued everyone should be able to go into a grocery store and buy the food they want with dignity.

Shawn Pegg of Food Banks Canada says there are limits to what his organization can do politically as a federally registered charity, but argues Riches and others like him who criticize food banks as being part of the problem don’t see the whole picture. What is needed, he said, is a multifaceted approach.

“There are other groups in Canada that are publicly very vocal about the need for change and about the need for political change to address food security and … we consider ourselves partners with many of them,” he said.

Pegg also points to the recent successes his organizations has achieved through lobbying of the government including the addition of $2 billion over five years to the federal budget for affordable housing,

Other advocacy groups are frustrated with the rate of change, but see the need for food banks to help those hungry today. Seth Klein, B.C director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said people need to make charitable contributions to meet immediate need but ultimately those efforts aren’t enough.  “We also have to redouble our efforts to go upstream,” he said.

Klein compares giving to the food bank and not tackling the cause of hunger to rushing into a river to fish out drowning babies, but not addressing what caused the babies to be put in the river in the first place.

Klein says Premier Christy Clark should develop a comprehensive plan to address poverty, advocate improvements to our safety net including increases to the minimum wage, welfare and unemployment rates and press for improvements to the Employment Standards Act. Unionization and affordable childcare are also pieces to help solve the puzzle of hunger and inequality, he said.

“Charity alone is not going to take us where we need to go so if you’re desire to help make a difference is only met through charitable giving that is not OK. It comes from a good place, a good impulse, but we’ve got to do better,” said Klein.

The Courier requested comment regarding the Hunger Count 2013 recommendations and received an emailed reply from the office of Wai Young, Conservative MP for Vancouver South:

“Our government believes that the best way to fight poverty is to help Canadians obtain quality jobs – our plan is doing just that by helping grow the economy and increasing the number of quality jobs available.”

Shirley Bond, the province's Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, also sent an email comment:

"B.C. is home to some of the most comprehensive supports for low-income individuals and their families in Canada. And through the B.C. Jobs Plan, we’re growing B.C.’s economy to protect and create jobs for decades to come – after all, the best support we can provide to anyone is access to a steady paycheque."

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