Island Voices: Are leftovers the best we can do for the ‘left behind’?

The B.C. government’s poverty-reduction plan has made a serious miscalculation.

Its $3-million grant supporting food-security projects, including $2 million for the Mustard Seed Street Church to purchase a warehouse for “food rescue” operations, misunderstands the primary cause of food insecurity across the province.

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In wealthy, food-secure British Columbia, distributing surplus food has won out over raising welfare rates to enable the hungry and homeless to afford to feed themselves and their families. The humiliating monthly $50 benefit increase keeps them below 50 per cent of the poverty line.

What is required for starters is an increase to 75 per cent, which is estimated to cost $365 million a year. Doable, yes, given political will. Yet government chooses the cheapest food-bank option.

More pointedly, why is the NDP, which advocates for human rights and social justice, so enamoured of “rescued food”? Likely because since the import of U.S.-style food banking to Vancouver in 1982 and across Canada, we now think domestic hunger is best left to charity and corporate food waste.

There is a moral imperative to feed hungry people. Yet “food rescue” is a feel-good invitation with little evidence that reducing food waste has anything to do with poverty reduction or food security for all. We all feel better, but the problem remains.

Despite this, the Chicago-based and corporately backed Global Foodbanking Network, of which Food Banks Canada is a founding member, recently aligned itself with the UN Sustainable Development Goals: promoting edible food waste as a “green” intervention promising zero hunger. Really?

“Feeding the needy” enables governments to stop questioning widespread food insecurity, which the minister of poverty reduction today acknowledges affects 500,000 British Columbians. They include those worrying about putting food on the table, those who compromise the quality of food, and those who may go days without eating, experiencing deep poverty. Yet, the minister seems ill-advised about its causes.

Since 2005, the B.C. government has known full well. Health Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey administered across all provinces routinely measures household food insecurity, defined as “the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints.” Hungry British Columbians need cash to shop for food in normal and customary ways — a living wage, adequate income benefits, real rent control. Income poverty is the cause.

Is “left over” food for “left behind” people really the best we can do?

When governments neglect deep poverty, income security and financial assistance become charitable food assistance. Food banks operate as secondary food markets, propping up ailing welfare systems. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food during his 2012 mission to Canada advised that reliance on food banks to feed 900,000 people was “symptomatic of a broken social protection system,” serving only as a “moral safety valve” for the state. Was the NDP listening?

Certainly, the B.C. government’s poverty-reduction plan has committed to an enhanced Child Opportunity Benefit, universal child care, eliminating interest on student loans, the re-introduction of adult basic education, scrapping the MSP premiums and other measures. However, the scant disregard for deep poverty is disturbing. The insulting $50 monthly increase merely compounds the shame and stigma of having to beg for food while further entrenching food-bank operations.

If the NDP government wishes to stand with the poor — as Tommy Douglas would surely have it do — what is to be done? It first must recognize food as a basic human need and fundamental right. It must understand food insecurity as a problem of income poverty cutting across associated risks, including Indigenous status, race, gender, disabilities, single parenthood, homelessness, mental health, unemployment, precarious living and material deprivation.

It must revisit Canada’s 1976 ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the right to food, clothing and shelter as critical components of the right to an adequate standard of living. As the “primary duty bearer,” the B.C. government must ensure domestic compliance under international law with its obligations to “respect, protect and fulfil” these rights, ensuring food security for all.

That means understanding food insecurity as a problem of income poverty. It must change the public conversation and political discourse from charity to human rights and social justice.

Graham Riches is emeritus professor and former director of the UBC School of Social Work. He is a member of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition.

Kell Gerlings is campaign co-ordinator for Raise the Rates B.C., a grassroots community group committed to raising welfare and disability, and ending poverty, in B.C.

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