Harnessing hunger

Food banks aren’t sufficient for fighting hunger, according to a new report from Canada’s community foundations.

That’s because the problem isn’t rooted in empty stomachs. It’s rooted in poverty.

“For 30 years communities have been responding to hunger with food banks and other strategies, but food bank usage shows no signs of slowing down,” says the annual report, released Tuesday as part of the national Vital Signs program. “Combine this with food prices that are rising at nearly twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index and it’s clear that this problem won’t be solved with food donations.”

Locally, the Hamilton Community Foundation found more than 17,000 people — including at least 6,000 children — accessed food banks in March of this year. That’s slightly fewer than in the same month last year, but still about 10 per cent higher than before the recession.

More than 17,000 people — including over 6,000 children — accessed food banks this March.

The vast majority — more than 75 per cent — also rely on Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program, the foundation noted.

“For many people going to food banks, it’s a story about being on provincial social assistance programs,” said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. “What it tells us is that social assistance rates are so woefully inadequate that people aren’t able to afford food for themselves and their families.”

Hamiltonians, Cooper added, are “tremendously generous” when the call goes out to stock the shelves of local food banks.

“But at the end of the day, these are Band-Aid solutions. They’re meeting immediate needs of people who are going hungry, but they are not addressing the core problem — that people simply do not have enough resources to purchase their own food.”

There are a number of things that should be done — and, in fact, a number that are being done — to address the problem at a local level, said the community foundation’s grant manager, Sharon Charters.

School food programs, for instance, help fill the hunger needs of students and reduce dependency on food banks. And community gardens, such as the various Victory Gardens scattered across the city, contribute thousands of pounds of produce to shelters and food banks each year.

“It’s about providing food, but it’s also about providing nutritious food,” Charters said.

“It’s about bringing together key stakeholders so we’re developing networks, groups of people who can try to address this problem.”

Still, Charters and Cooper agree that a central piece of the solution lies in provincial reforms, such as boosting social assistance rates and the minimum wage.

“I think we are doing great stuff here at the local level to address immediate needs,” said Cooper. “But the bigger picture is really around society’s answer to addressing that percentage of our community who are not able to purchase their own food.”

Ted McMeekin, a local MPP who is Minister of Community and Social Services, said he has always been of the opinion that indexing rates and wages would “at least make sure that the people those particular policies are set aside to help won’t fall further behind.”

“My biggest challenge,” McMeekin added, “is to convince my colleagues on all sides of the house that social assistance and social justice issues ought to hold a higher place in the hierarchy of needs they’re trying to respond to.”

For Joanne Santucci, however, the solution is more complicated — and there’s probably no “silver bullet.”

“It’s going to take a strategy of major proportions on a myriad of fronts,” said the executive director of Hamilton Food Share. “I presume if you do increase the rates and you do index them that will go a long way, but that isn’t the only problem now.”

A summary of national food security trends and comparable local data is available at www.hamiltonvitalsigns.ca.