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After 30 years we need viable alternatives to food banks

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Food banks opened their doors 30 years ago. Meant to be a short-term, emergency solution to hunger, their doors remain open because the need has been steadily growing and shows no sign of stopping. 

Canadians have been duped into believing that we can keep hunger at bay by donating to our local food banks. We teach our children to give to those who are not as fortunate and have less than we do. But, after three decades it's time to implement sustainable solutions that will allow every Canadian to have financial and food security.

People using food banks generally have some source of income. Employment is the main source, followed by Employment Insurance (EI), social assistance, and disability-related income. In each case the amount of income is insufficient and food is sacrificed in order to pay for housing, transportation, and daily living expenses that are inflexible.

To end hunger and poverty, Canadians need a national living wage; improved access to and levels of EI; rates of social assistance and disability payments that keep recipients above the poverty line; a guaranteed livable income to boost the incomes of those falling below a standardized federal poverty line; and to close the gender wage gap. To make a meaningful change in the lives of lower-income and middle-income Canadians we need an affordable national, universal child-care program and a national affordable housing plan.

The low income cut-off (LICO) in 2011 for a single person living in a large urban centre was $23,289 before taxes. For two persons it was $29,004. A family of four was $43,292. According to Statistics Canada, one in 10 Canadians live in poverty. That's 3.2 million Canadians, including 634,000 children.

The poverty gap between total welfare income and LICO varies from province to province. Total welfare incomes consist of the sum of social assistance plus provincial/territorial and federal child benefits as well as relevant provincial/territorial and federal tax credits. Welfare payments vary by status: single employable; person with disability; single parent; one child couple; two children couple. However, all recipients, with the exception of a single parent and child living in Newfoundland, are living well below the LICO level. 

If we focus on welfare income as a percentage of LICO, then the single person living in Manitoba fares worst at 35.9 per cent, while a single parent and child in Newfoundland does best at 103.2 per cent. Generally, single people receive the lowest welfare payments across the country while single parents with one child receive the largest amounts. Falling between the two extremes in ascending order are a person with disability, a couple with two children, and then single parents with one child.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found social assistance transfers raise a mere 13 per cent of jobless Canadian households out of poverty. The average across OECD countries is 50 per cent.

Low rates of social assistance in almost all provinces and territories means recipients have little chance of breaking free from poverty. Even if a person receiving social assistance finds work the extra money is clawed back by provincial governments leaving them in the same financially precarious situation.

Non-custodial parents may be required to make child-support payments to custodial parents receiving social assistance but, all provinces (except British Columbia) claw back support payments up to the amount equivalent to the custodial parent's social assistance payments. In other words, children living in poverty most likely won't see a penny of court-ordered child support. Likewise, provinces need to stop clawing back any portion of the Canada Child Benefit paid to families on social assistance.

A guaranteed living wage needs to be set so that incomes are at least 10 per cent above the poverty line. A guaranteed living income could achieve that in one of two ways. The Negative Income Tax (NIT) model tops up incomes falling below a designated minimum income floor, while the Universal Basic Income (UBI) model gives every citizen a fixed, non-taxable payment above which any additional income is taxed. The provincial welfare system is the only program that would become redundant.

The shift in labour markets toward precarious employment is here to stay. A GLI means an individual or family has access to adequate funds for housing and food when they need it. Currently, over four million adults and children live with food insecurity. GLI could lower this number by 1.2 million individuals. This in turn would result in significant savings within the health-care system alone.

Federal and provincial governments need to close the gender wage gap once and for all.  Canada has one of the largest gender pay gaps in the OECD. The difference between men and women's median wages is 19 per cent in Canada vs. an average 15 per cent in the OECD. In Ontario the gap is about 30 per cent, down just 6 per cent since provincial legislation was introduced 25 years ago.

Every month 852,137 Canadians, 33 per cent of whom are children and youth, use a food bank to try to alleviate their hunger. Each person, or family, can access a particular food bank once a month. On average, they'll receive enough canned and prepackaged food to provide nine percent of their monthly food needs.

The organizers of the Ontario campaign, Put Food In the Budget think it's time to decide whether we want to continue relying on food banks to help people meet their most basic needs for food or do we want proactive solutions that will provide each Canadian with the means to make their own food choices in a dignified manner?

After 30 years of "emergency" food banks, it's time that people who donate to food banks demand government policies to put food into the budget of all Canadians.

Put Food in the Budget has created a quick online survey for Ontarians to let them know whether you prefer food banks or policies that put food in the budget.

Complete the survey right now by clicking here.

Then, copy this link https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PFIBsurvey and send it to people in your network and ask them to complete the survey.

Download a copy of the survey here, make copies and:

  • Ask friends to fill it in
  • Give them to people at your local grocery store or your local food bank

Please mail any completed surveys to:

Put Food in the Budget

283 Danforth Avenue, Suite 143

Toronto, Ontario, M4K 1N2

The results of the survey will be published in January.

To find a food bank in Canada near you, click here.

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