How Hunger Became a First World Problem 

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There's something horribly wrong when Canada produces plenty of food for everyone, yet there are many people who are dependent on food banks to eat, says Graham Riches, the co-editor of a new book looking at how wealthy countries around the world address hunger.

A retired director of the school of social work at the University of British Columbia, Riches co-edited First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food? with Tiina Silvasti, a social and public policy professor from Finland.

"Hunger has successfully been socially constructed as a matter for charity and not an issue requiring the priority attention of the state and public policy," says a chapter that deals with Canada's response to hunger, which Riches co-authored with Valerie Tarasuk at the University of Toronto.

The book looks at food insecurity and the rise of food banks on five continents in a dozen countries, including the United States, Australia, Spain, Brazil and South Africa. It finds common patterns that Riches, in an interview, attributed to the spread of global neoliberalism, with its reduced role for governments and lack of support for people left outside the labour market.

"The ineffectiveness of charitable food banks is masked by their high degree of public legitimacy," Riches and Tarasuk wrote. "Increasingly they have become embedded within popular and now corporate culture as practical compassion and a common sense response to household food insecurity and the country's broken social safety net."

Hunger is the result of people's inability to afford food, and food needs to be recognized as a right, not something to be looked after through charity, they said. "It is primarily a matter of federal and provincial economic and social policy, income distribution and public health."

Living up to our commitment to treat food as a human right, much like water or clean air, would result in a much different set of government policy choices, said Riches. Following is his interview with The Tyee, edited and condensed:

Why is there food insecurity in wealthy countries?

"We're food secure societies that produce enough. It's a lack of access to it. Many people just don't have the money in their pockets to go into stores and buy the food they need. This is where the question of rights come in. If you have jobs, but they're not paying enough, you're in trouble. It's very much an income problem, and that's the result of a failure of public policy. There's a question of whether government has lost its moral compass."

If we took the right to food seriously, what would we do?

"I think we do need to be aware Canada ratified the right to food and provinces are party to that. These are obligations. Governments need to recognize the right to food and adopt poverty reduction plans. I think that kind of language, even though it may be largely rhetorical, it does express a commitment. It opens up opportunities to discuss what we mean by this. The rights discourse is an important one and demonstrates why this area should not be left to charity."

How did we end up with food banks in Canada?

"Food banks came to Canada for a couple reasons. One was the recession in the 1980s, and unemployment insurance and income support programs weren't up to the task. When food banks began in Canada, a lot of the people who worked in them had been in the States and brought them back. We see this Americanization of our social welfare system in different ways. However, about one in six people in the United States are food insecure. Why are we going down this route when clearly it's not an effective response to dealing with hunger?"

What do you see as better solution?

"I think the sets of policies that have to occur have to do with the living wage (a wage calculated to cover a family's basic expenses) and social assistance and adequate employment insurance. There are other options like a guaranteed liveable income, but always there's the question of adequacy. Past raises to income assistance programs have seemed unrelated to inflation or the actual cost of living. It seems that when raises do get made they get made as a political adjustment. Programs to make childcare and housing more affordable would help. There are a whole lot of policies that have nothing to do with food that allow people to deal with this basic need."

Are there some people for whom that might not work?

"There are people suffering drug addictions or living with disabilities who need assistance and for whom food is a support. I just think they need to be adequately funded on a long-term basis so people can get access and not be dependent on ad hoc charitable giving. Procurement policies need to be clearly identified to support the agencies in the communities that are needed. Not everyone who has money in their pocket can look after themselves."

I was jarred by the term "surplus" people. What is it getting across?

"I wanted to engage the idea that it somehow seems appropriate to use surplus food, that's edible but unsalable, that somehow we can give that to vulnerable people. We use the term 'surplus people' because these are people who are surplus to the labour market. They are under employed and under valued. I wanted to make the contrast: We have surplus food over here that nobody wants, and we have people over here that nobody wants. I think people being 'surplus' to society's needs makes an important point. This is about fundamental human dignity."

If you were a person without enough to eat, in which country covered in the book, would you most want to be a citizen?

"I suppose in many ways I would probably more want to be in Finland than I would anywhere else, even though Finland has food banks happening, which isn't supposed to happen in a Nordic state. Their social supports are more developed. Brazil uses food banks as a way to address poverty, but has also made great strides on income security with its Bolsa Familia program.

"In Hong Kong they're in desperate need in terms of higher wage levels, and yet it's a massively wealthy society that could afford to have a well-developed system of social security.

"The other countries in different ways have issues and problems with food that are very similar to Canada... This is the impact of global neoliberalism."

Many well-meaning people feel supporting a food bank is better than doing nothing. Are they wrong?

"I think people feel conflicted about it... That does get to the heart of the matter. There's a moral imperative to feed hungry people. It's embedded in the world's religion... As Janet Poppendieck from the United States points out in the book, it's also a moral safety valve. We've done our best. It sort of absolves one's guilt. We feel we've done our bit and life can go on.

"The straight giving is about this moral imperative to give to hungry people, but when it gets built into organizations, a whole other set of questions come in. They have this hidden function of allowing us to see food security as a matter for charity and not an obligation of the state. In Canada we're too tolerant of this system. Maybe the flipside of this tolerance is indifference.

"If you give to the food bank, every time you give something to the food bank, contact your politician and say I've done my bit, what are you doing? It could become a political act."

You've been critical in the past of the public broadcaster CBC's annual food drives. Why?

"That's one that drives me nuts. Every year. We tried to get them to have a right-to-food day. What they say is they've listened very carefully to what you've said, but believe over the course of the year they've given adequate attention to these other issues, which I think is a load of baloney.

"Last year, the CBC raised about $5 per person who used a food bank, but it gives the impression the issue has been addressed. It's about this construction of the debate. I think when the public broadcaster does it, it's a problem."

You wrote that it's likely the federal government will continue to neglect food insecurity. Why do you feel that way?

"I feel with this particular government they don't actually see it as their responsibility. Clearly as a matter of social policy they don't. Given their response to the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, he was sort of summarily dismissed. They were very dismissive of the ideas he brought in terms of a national food policy. There's no sort of interest in a national affordable housing policy or national affordable childcare policy. If the Liberals or NDP get into government, slowly you might see a change.

"I think there are elements of a fight back and a struggle. To me the crucial actors are the people on the left, or who see themselves on the left, who have been fairly silent on these issues. We need to hear more from the NDP. The party that's meant to be defending the poor and advocating for it, we don't hear enough. They say that's not how you win elections, but I don't know, has it ever been tested? If governments have lost their moral compass, do we need to have an opposition lose its moral compass as well?"

What needs to happen?

"We have to keep engaging the issue, better informing the public and listening as well. If we're saying food banks are a necessary evil, maybe we should deal with the evil and change the conversation from food charity to the right to food and what responsibility governments have for this. We don't have to wait in Canada all the time for the feds to do things. Provinces have the power and the means to do things if they have the will."

First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food? Edited by Graham Riches and Tiina Silvasti, Palgrave MacMillan (2014).

You can find more by Andrew MacLeod at the Tyee.ca, or pick up his book at http://www.harbourpublishing.com/title/ABetterPlaceonEarth. n

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