BC Governments must not leave problem of hunger to food banks

January 1, 2002

The current decline in financial donations to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank is cause for grave concern. It has rightly been picked up by the media and the public is being asked to meet the shortfall in food and funds. The moral imperative of the community to support our hungry fellow citizens should go without saying.

At the same time, as a community, we need to understand that behind the food bank issue lies a profound crisis in social policy: the collapse of Canada's social contract, now further imperiled in BC by provincial government cutbacks.

Over a twenty year period food banks here in BC and across the country have become an entrenched and institutionalized second tier of Canada's social assistance system. In March 2000 they were nationally feeding 726,902 people a month. In BC, during the same month, 85 food banks and 170 emergency food agencies assisted 75,987 people with their food needs, of whom nearly forty percent were children. Since 1984, as the incidence of hunger has grown in BC, the number of food banks has nearly doubled.

These numbers are astounding in a country as wealthy as Canada and whose federal budget is still in surplus. Yet they are likely an underestimate of the numbers of hungry Canadians. The recent National Health Population Survey (1998/99) reported that over 10% of Canadians, or an estimated 3 million people, were living in food-insecure households. These included people who both worried about not having enough money to buy food and those forced to compromise their diets.

Food banks clearly perform a much-needed and worthwhile charitable function. Yet we musn't be lulled into thinking they are solving the problem. The sad reality is that food banks run out of food, cannot guarantee nourishing diets, and have to turn people away. The evidence from numerous studies over a fifteen year period indicates that food banking is unable to solve the problem of hunger.

The goal of food banks is to meet emergency food needs as best they can, not to deal with the underlying causes of poverty and hunger. Their dilemma is that the charity they provide is shielding governments from the extent and severity of the problem and allowing attention to be distracted from adequate income, employment and social programs.

At the root has been the withering away of Canada's post World War II social contract based on commitments to full employment/economic growth; universal social programs and an adequate social minimum. The abandonment of this contract has been characterized by the downsizing and downloading of government; cuts to welfare benefits and entitlement; inadequate employment benefits and minimum wages; an increasing reliance on charity and the community to address problems like hunger and homelessness; and the demise of the Canada Assistance Plan in 1996.

Before we can solve the problem of hunger, British Columbians need to determine a new social contract for the province. This will not be achieved by our current government's insistence on pushing through a reform program that will only create greater social inequality and deprivation.

What is needed is a coming together of labour and corporate interests, communities, and the state. Perhaps this is a naive suggestion given the divisive and volatile nature of BC politics, but surely it is no one's interest-rich or poor-to permit such widespread hunger to exist.

Graham Riches is Professor and Director of the School of Social Work and Family Studies at the University of British Columbia, and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.