THE BLOG

What I Want for Christmas: No More Hungry Children

01/03/2014 11:55 EST | Updated 03/05/2014 05:59 EST

At this time of year, when many Canadians are about to make a child's Christmas a little brighter, a senior federal Minister had to apologize for insensitive remarks about child poverty.

Canadians should understand that this was not a one-off remark but a reflection of a deeper, callous abdication of any responsibility to tackle child poverty and child hunger.

When I repeatedly asked in the House of Commons about child hunger and the need for a pan-Canadian student nutrition program, my questions to the government were met only with disdain.

Canadians should know that we remain the only industrialized country without a national breakfast program and that 169 other countries feed their children, which they see as an investment in education, health and rural economies, and not a tax drain.

Surely, Canadians who "adopt a family" at Christmas, deliver a toy to "toy mountain" or another charity, or donate food to a food bank do not believe that children hurt only during the holidays. Nor do they believe that volunteers alone can sustain the one in seven Canadian children - and one in four First Nations and Inuit children - whose families struggle to provide the best possible start each morning.

Surely, we believe that no child deserves to go hungry, and we know that no parent ever wants a child to go hungry. In fact, parents tend to do whatever it takes, including working two to three jobs, just to put food on the table.

Under these conditions, it becomes difficult for parents to feed their children breakfast before sending them off to school. And if they are working several low-paying jobs, can parents actually afford nutritious food? Must they settle for the two-dollar, two-litre orange pop rather than the five-dollar litre of orange juice?

Simply put, hungry children cannot learn. Their development may be impacted for life, and they may never reach their full potential. The United States understood this when it implemented a national lunch program in 1946 to ensure strong, healthy soldiers.

The Harper Conservatives have it wrong. They should honor the government's 1989 and 1992 promises to eliminate child poverty in Canada, and to ensure safe, nutritious food for all.

The Canada I grew up in believed in a fair and just society, where everyone had an equal shot. If you worked hard, you had enough food on the table, a roof over your head, you could send your children to college or university, and save for your retirement. Where is that Canada today?

The Canada I grew up in believed that you fed your neighbour's child when there was need, and that government was there to look after our most vulnerable citizens. It is shameful that the Harper Conservatives have forgotten these core Canadian values.

The government has insulated itself from the face of poverty. A child collecting food on the street is hungry; a mother rummaging through garbage cans is doing so to feed her child; and a child who wears the same top every day of the year very likely goes to school hungry.

Years ago, before I ever entered politics, I chaired a week-long event to raise awareness about child hunger in Toronto. Back then, the Toronto Foundation for Student Success supported about 80,000 students every morning. Today, it supports 147,000, as 40 and 62 percent of elementary and secondary students, respectively, go to school hungry.

Back then, I was already tired of ridiculous, unconscionable excuses from politicians -- excuses that do not fill stomachs. I literally took the politicians back to school, on a yellow bus. The politicians were to have fasted for a day, to know what it felt like to miss dinner. Not one met this challenge, but they were indeed excited about the photo-op on a school bus.

The first school visit brought a cold, hard dose of reality. A four-year-old, whom the principal snuck into the program, wolfed down more than I would eat in three days. The children then explained to the well-fed politicians what eating breakfast meant to them. You could have heard a pin drop on the bus ride back.

So, what do I want for Christmas? I want politicians to learn to see, to see children who are hurting, and to want to fix the problems. I want politicians to go to inner-city schools, newcomer schools or rural schools, to see the need and understand that volunteers cannot solve the problem alone, and that they need help. And I want them to make a New Year's resolution to do better by our children, and to begin with developing a pan-Canadian student nutrition program. As Buzz Aldrin said, "if we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger".