Why Governments Can Safely Ignore Hunger

Corporate food charity keeps hunger off political agenda
February 1, 2011

Over the past 30 years, Canadians have increasingly been led to believe that community compassion expressed through charitable food handouts is the most effective way of feeding our hungry poor and homeless. Since the establishment of the first food banks in the early 1980s, domestic hunger has become increasingly socially constructed as a matter for philanthropy, not as a political and human rights issue necessitating the priority attention of governments.

This reliance on charity has been steadily weakening Canada’s once progressive social safety net, and continues to threaten current anti-poverty strategies.

It is therefore welcome news that, federally, an NDP- and Bloc-supported private members’ Bill -- C-545, An Act to Eliminate Poverty in Canada -- which recognizes poverty as a human rights issue, passed first reading in June, 2010. Also, encouragingly, provincial governments from Manitoba eastwards are now endorsing poverty reduction and social inclusion strategies, with the three territorial governments also showing some interest. Additionally, the recent national food policy proposals of the Liberals and NDP, though a little weak on the food access question, are a further sign that hunger might yet regain political attention.

Yet one must ask how likely it is that a re-assertive role for the state will emerge as a force for addressing widespread food insecurity rooted in poverty and income inequality. And, realistically, what are the prospects for anti-poverty strategies informed by the economic and social rights of Canada’s hungry citizens? After all, Prime Minister Harper’s minority government is led by state minimalists, and Canada’s three Western-most provinces – the heartland of social conservatism -- are a long way from committing to poverty reduction plans. For too many politicians, domestic hunger remains a largely invisible issue and poverty a matter for residual welfare.

Progressive change may be possible, but, if so, the nature of the underlying obstacle must first be recognized and overcome. The fact is that combatting hunger and entrenched poverty through the work of charity has become culturally embedded and publicly acceptable. Donating cans of beans symbolizes (and is a concrete expression of) the new safety net. Even governments refer welfare claimants to charitable food banks and so evade their public responsibility. It is important, therefore, to consider how this state of affairs has come about. Tracing the historical development of Canada’s food bank movement provides some critical insights.

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Charitable food banks emerged in Canada as a direct response to the deep recession of the early 1980s and the inadequacy of federal UI benefits and provincial social assistance. Interestingly, Alberta (1981), B.C. (1982), and Saskatchewan (1983), today’s poverty reduction plan no-shows, were the first in which charitable food banks were established. Today, across the country, nearly 900 food banks are feeding 867,000 people a month, 38% of them children or youth under the age of 18 (HungerCount 2010). Over the last two years, food bank use has risen by 28%. More to the point, with governments looking the other way, charitable food banking has become a national corporate enterprise of considerable reach, a second tier of the welfare system.

It has built upon the early work of ad hoc community and faith-based food banking, which created a social context in which the moral imperative to feed hungry people resonated with the public. This was followed by the slow institutionalization and then corporatization of charitable food banking. A generation on from the founding of the first food bank, corporate Canada now exerts increasing control and influence over food charity and how we think about hunger. Big business -- and in particular the food and transportation industries, professional sports organizations, and the TV and radio news media -- have become persuasive educators of food philanthropy.

But, by feeding the public perception that hunger is essentially a matter for charity, corporate food bank sponsorship acts as a major obstacle to ending domestic hunger and advancing poverty reduction in Canada. This corporatization of charity – resulting in the de-politicization and privatization of hunger -- has been enabling governments to turn a blind eye to this most basic of human needs. In 1976, Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the right to food, thereby confirming its obligations under international law to meet this need. Thirty-five years later, corporate food charity trumps the obligations of governments to provide adequate levels of income security and a restructured and publicly-funded social safety net ensuring affordable food for all.

Little wonder, given that for years governments have been reducing the already inadequate food purchasing power of welfare incomes so that today, for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, they are insufficient to pay the rent and feed the family. Consequently, for the hungry poor, charitable food handouts have become the meal ticket of last resort, watched over since 1987 by the Canadian Association of Food Banks, renamed Food Banks Canada in 2008, and its 450 provincially affiliated food banks.

Today, a vast patchwork of charitable food banks and  feeding programs offering food of uneven nutritional quality and limited quantity has become the established norm of domestic hunger relief. Little wonder food banks are perceived as effective demonstrations of practical community compassion. Not surprisingly, governments have lacked any appetite for public intervention, especially now that corporate Canada has stepped up to the plate.

Representatives of companies such as McCain’s, Kraft, Campbell’s, Loblaw, Nestlé, Investors Group, Purolator, CPR, CNN, as well as the Conference Board of Canada, either serve on the board of Food Banks Canada or, as partners, directly donate surplus food or contribute to the National Food Sharing System (www.foodbankscanada.ca). They offer corporate management skills and financial expertise, as well as direct aid in cash and kind.  

Food banks across the country now enjoy the institutionalized sponsorship of Canada’s food, finance, and transportation sectors, ensuring the free distribution and transportation of millions of tons of disposable food. Corporate food charity has become the hidden lynchpin propping up Canada’s tattered social safety net and welfare system. But just how effective and efficient is this business food bank model?

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Food Banks Canada itself, in its 2010 HungerCount survey, acknowledges the failings of food charity. A third of all food banks fail to meet their clients’ nutritional needs. They lack funding, run out of food, resort to rationing, and close early. Demand consistently outstrips food donations, and, most depressingly, reported food bank usage greatly underestimates the number of food-poor Canadians. The 2004 Health Canada survey reported that 2.7 million Canadians, or 8.8% of the population, live in food-insecure households and are judged to be moderately or severely food insecure. Notably, the survey sample excluded, among others, individuals living in the three territories, those on First Nations reserves or Crown lands, and those in prisons or care facilities.

     Seeking to increase the supply of donated food, thereby enhancing its charitable feeding role, Food Banks Canada has now published a two-pronged proposal for tax system recognition benefiting food manufacturers, importers and distributors to deduct from taxable income the cost of goods donated to food banks; and to create a non-refundable tax credit that will allow food growers (farmers, fishers, livestock producers, etc.) to deduct from taxes owed 25% of the wholesale value of fresh produce donated to food banks. This proposal has been borrowed from the United States, where it was introduced in 1976, but even there food banks cannot meet the demand. The proposal is further evidence of the Americanization of Canada’s social welfare system.

In addition, there are the vexing questions about the nutritional quality of donated food and the ethics of a profit-conscious food industry benefiting from cost savings by passing on to charity its disposable or wasted food which, in its pricing structures, the consumer has already paid for. Yes, Food Banks Canada argues that governments should meet their income and social welfare responsibilities, but why bother when food charity, despite its inability to meet demand, is now the socially acceptable and politically safe response?

The sports and entertainment industry likewise promotes the idea of food charity. Football fans are encouraged to donate to food banks by Purolator’s Tackle Hunger televised food bank drives at CFL games throughout the summer and fall. NHL and WHL hockey teams do likewise during the winter and spring. Rock concerts are also sites for advancing the cause of food donations. Perhaps it is churlish to be critical, but one needs to ask: who is really benefiting from this type of sponsorship – the sports clubs, the fans, or the hungry. We need to be asking whether the real function of such food charity is to act as a moral safety valve allowing us to feel good about ourselves, reassuring us that we have done our bit while conveniently allowing us to forget that domestic hunger and food insecurity are steadily increasing.

Perhaps, though, it is the corporate news media which pose the most difficult questions to face. Led by the CBC’s uncritical support of food bank drives, our media consistently and uncritically perpetuate the myth of the effectiveness of charitable food aid. What explains Canada’s national public broadcaster actively promoting food charity? Doubtless for the same reason that corporate social responsibility feeds the business bottom line. In the media ratings’ war, it attracts listeners and viewers.

If the CBC wishes to show its concern by promoting charitable food relief, why not support campaigns for a living wage, adequate income security, affordable social housing and child care, harm reduction and enhanced mental health services, together with an integrated national food policy? Of course, it’s because it fears this would be misconstrued as ideological posturing and political partisanship. But its active promotion of food charity is exactly that! It disempowers those who claim that hunger and poverty reductions are primary obligations of government; it undermines the concept of hunger and poverty as political and human rights issues; and it portrays hunger in Canada as a matter for charity regardless of its continuing failure to meet the need.

Community compassion for the hungry poor, combined with a steady diet of corporate-promoted food charity perspectives, is difficult to resist. But, contrary to the facts, they persuade us that those lacking food access are in good hands, that their plates are full, and their diets are nourishing.

No wonder domestic hunger remains invisible as a human rights and social justice issue on Canada’s public policy agenda. The corporatization of hunger allows our governments to keep looking the other way.

(Graham Riches is a CCPA-BC Research Associate and Professor Emeritus of Social Work at the University of British Columbia.)