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Getting at the root causes of hunger in Atlantic Canada

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Photo: vancouverbcfoodbank/Flickr

Food Banks Canada released its latest statistics on national food bank usage this week. The data are assembled in a document titled HungerCount 2012. Not only has food bank usage continued to increase, more and more users are working and more are families with children. According to the report's authors, "In March of this year, 882,188 people received food from a food bank in Canada. This is an increase of 2.4 per cent over 2011, and is 31 per cent higher than in 2008, before the recession began."

The statistics for Atlantic Canada aren't good. In Newfoundland and Labrador more than 1-in-20 people received assistance from a food bank in 2012. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had 1-in-40 residents were assisted by a food bank. Prince Edwards Island's food banks were used by more than 2.3 per cent of its inhabitants.

What's worse, many of those assisted in 2012 were not adults. About one-in-three food bank users in the Maritimes, and almost 40 per cent of users in Newfoundland and Labrador, were children. Forty-nine per cent, almost half (!) of Canadian households assisted are families with children. Food bank usage, a result of low income, is moving further into the mainstream; the food bank is no longer exclusively the realm of the homeless and hyper-marginalized.

About one-quarter of total food bank users were living in two-parent families in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador and one-fifth in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Further, a large portion of those seeking assistance are wage-earners. In Nova Scotia, 13 per cent of those assisted are in families whose primary income is a paid wage, in New Brunswick the number is 10.4 per cent, and in Newfoundland it's 8.4 per cent.  More than one-fifth of food bank patrons in Prince Edward Island live in a household with someone who is working.

Save for slight improvements in Newfoundland and Labrador, the number of food bank users in the Atlantic Provinces continues to rise.

Food assistance becomes a necessity when people are unable to afford to pay for the basics. The food budget is the one 'discretionary' expense in the budget that is often used for fixed necessities such as heat, electricity or phone expenses. As HungerCount's authors note, "People asking for help are working in low-paying jobs, receiving meagre social assistance benefits, managing on inadequate pensions. They face rising costs related to food, housing, and energy."

Like other social ills, hunger is not a problem that can be solved by charity. HungerCount 2012's authors provide ample evidence that the national demand for food charity vastly outstrips the supply. In 2012, 14 per cent of food banks ran out of food, 8 per cent were forced to close early (or not open), 60 per cent operated over capacity and 55 per cent had to lower the amount of food offered per family.

HungerCount 2012's authors suggest that governments should focus on, "affordable housing, social investment in Northern Canada, pensions, social assistance, and job quality." Each of these recommendations is about getting to the root causes of hunger, focusing on preventing hunger by implementing policies that reduce the number of people living in poverty. These recommendations also make good economic sense and would decrease the massive costs of poverty (over $1.5 billion/year in Nova Scotia, over $1.3 billion/year in New Brunswick and over $240 million/year in Prince Edwards Island).

Of particular importance for Atlantic Canadians is the movement of the economy away from stable, high-wage, unionized employment with benefits, toward precarious, low-wage, part-time, unprotected spheres of employment. Between 2001 and 2010, the Atlantic Canada economy created about four times as many low-wage jobs as it did in high-wage sectors. Focusing on "jobs" does not solve hunger. Indeed, many of the people using food banks work full-time in low-wage jobs and about half of Nova Scotian children living in poverty are in homes with at least one full-time, full-year earner!

The authors are rightfully concerned with policies that contribute to the growing war on workers. Among these issues are the federal government's recent changes to Employment Insurance and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as well as the repeal of the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act. The authors understand that these regressive measures are "likely to have a negative effect on earnings across the board."

As we have seen, hunger is a result of low income. Only by making Atlantic Canada a place where good jobs grow can we eliminate the demand for food banks. This means enacting pro-worker legislation and promoting organized labour. It means funding a strong public sector through unabashedly progressive taxation. Cutting services to fund corporate tax cuts will only exacerbate the growth of low-wage industries and promote further hunger.

Atlantic Canadians will cease to require the service of food banks when we grow high-wage, stable jobs, and fund good social programs like affordable housing and child care, through progressive taxation. Of course, it is critical to ensure that the food we can access comes from a sustainable, local food system -- that means coupling poverty reduction policies with those that help our farmers earn a decent living and enable them to provide local, affordable food. Something as essential as the food security of communities should not rely on volunteer work and donations. Rather, it is up to the public sector to fill in where markets fail.

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