Poor going hungry in recession

This week, Food Banks Canada, the association of food banks across Canada, released its annual survey on food bank use in Canada. Hunger Count 2009 reveals, not surprisingly, that it is the poor that have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. There are now nearly 800,000 people a month in Canada who are using the food bank. This is one of the world’s wealthiest nations that tends to pride itself in the vitality of our social structures, yet it has so many people needing emergency food aid.

Often we are quick to describe things as a crisis: the H1N1 crisis, the economic crisis and so on. It seems you label something a crisis and there is government money aplenty for it. Have an economic crisis? Quickly, there are billions for bailouts and infrastructure projects. H1N1? Let’s shell out hundreds of millions for vaccines, nurses and healthcare. Personally, I don’t see a whole lot wrong with either of these things. However, governments have been more reluctant to put money into ensuring Canadians have enough food to eat.

Perhaps it’s time that we start talking about food issues in terms of a “hunger crisis.” Maybe this is what it will take to open the wallets of policy makers. The year 2009 saw the largest year-over-year increase ever recorded by Hunger Count — an 18 per cent increase in food bank use over last year. The rise was particularly sharp in provinces hardest hit by the recession. Alberta saw a food bank use increase of 61 per cent in one year. Ontario, B.C. and Nova Scotia all had increases around 20 per cent. Interestingly, though, the two provinces arguably least affected by the recession, also saw food bank use increases. Saskatchewan, which seems poised to take over from Alberta as the leading centre of wealth in the country, experienced a six per cent increase. Meanwhile, Manitoba, whose economy suffered less than many other provinces, still saw an increase of 18 per cent over last year.

It should come as no surprise that the vulnerable are suffering the most from an economic downturn. This is nothing new. But Hunger Count does serve as an important wake-up call to Canadians that there is hunger in our midst — that we do in fact have a hunger crisis. In fact, if you were to put all the food bank users in one city, it would be the fifth largest in Canada — bigger than cities like Edmonton or Winnipeg.

Canadian governments at all levels have done a lot to address the economic crisis. On an average day, I see five or more signs toting Canada’s Economic Action Plan. Across the country architects are making plans, shovels are plunging into the dirt and buildings are rising. Nothing wrong with this — lots of useful things are being built and jobs provided. Before that, governments poured money to prop up dying companies. I’m less sure what to do with this — in general I would be opposed to such corporate welfare, yet, realistically, the people that would have suffered most had those industries failed would have been the thousands of people who worked in them.

But while the auto industry has been temporarily saved and construction industries boom, what have governments done for those most vulnerable to the economic collapse? What has been done to support those working low-wage jobs? What has been done for those on income assistance, particularly in provinces where the cost of living has soared (I’m thinking of Alberta in particular here) in recent years? What has been done for our Aboriginal communities? What has been done for the single mother, or those with mental illness? Many governments have forgotten the least of these, the most vulnerable in our society.

In times of economic hardship, there is often significant pressure on our governments to tighten their belts and reduce spending. However, it is important that our governments take to heart the numbers that have been revealed by Hunger Count. The hunger crisis won’t be solved by budget cuts or tax breaks. It requires poverty reduction strategies and investment. It requires both a sense of urgency and a long term commitment. It is not always easy and straightforward. But when there are 800,000 hungry people in our communities it is pretty essential that we get started somewhere. Across the country, communities are ready to act. It’s time to invest in “shovel-ready” hunger projects to solve our nations hunger crisis before more Canadians have to experience the pain of hunger.

Stefan Epp is a researcher at the University of Manitoba.