We are one day away from the Thanksgiving long weekend. For many Canadian families this is all about gathering around a dinner table, laden with delicious vegetables, succulent turkeys and elaborate pastries to give thanks and take pleasure in the bounties of the harvest season.
Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on one's blessings, and share them with loved ones. However, this Thanksgiving weekend, thousands of Canadians will go hungry. In Ontario alone, over 400,000 individuals rely on food banks and food assistance programs every single month.
It is hard to imagine that poverty and chronic hunger exist in such a traditionally wealthy country like Canada, but the truth is both poverty and chronic hunger are alive within this nation, and reach well beyond the confines of sky scrapers in downtown urban centres. There is a stigma attached to poverty, and for many, a certain image comes to mind of what poverty actually looks like. The truth is, chronic hunger affects Canadians of all walks of life, and poverty exists to varying degrees within all communities across this country.
The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto recently released their Who's Hungry 2012 report that profiles hunger in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Every year, Daily Bread sends out volunteers to over 40 food banks across Ontario's largest city and its surrounding areas to meet one on one with food bank clients. The results of these interviews are compiled to create a powerful report that truly shows what hunger looks like in the city.
This past year, many food bank clients, when asked what is the number one reason for not accessing a food bank when in need, overwhelmingly stated that a sense of pride and desire not to be stigmatized held them back from seeking food assistance. This is incredibly troubling.
When it comes to accessing necessary social services like food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters, many often think "I would never let things get so bad that they got to that point." But the reality of the situation is that many of us are only a paycheque or two away from deep, financial, trouble. The unnecessary stigma we have attached to social services and the people that rely on them needs to change.
Who's Hungry 2012 notes that there are growing trends in demographics among food bank clients. When comparing data from five years ago, the people that are visiting GTA food banks are older, more likely to be born outside of Canada, and attended post-secondary education. The report also shows that there has been an increase of 18 per cent in overall food bank visits throughout the GTA since the recession started in 2008. Many of these increases are coming from suburban neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Toronto's city centre. Poverty is no longer an inner city problem. It affects all communities, both urban and suburban, across Canada.
The importance of studying who uses food banks, and why, is imperative so that we can look at the deep root of chronic hunger and work to make strategic changes to ensure that no Canadian goes hungry. All things considered, I have one question to ask you: why does it matter what a person looks like, or where they come from when trying to defend the need for food assistance programs, and other social services?
If a person, if a Canadian citizen with the same rights and freedoms as you and I, needs help because they lost their job, because they are receiving disability payments, or because they are working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, why do we negatively label them and cast them off of our radar?
This holiday weekend, we urge you to really look at poverty and hunger within your own community. Understand that they exist, and discover why. By looking at hunger as a national issue as opposed to individual faults, we see a bigger picture. We see that maybe we aren't all that different after all. One volunteer of Who's Hungry 2012 very eloquently described their experience in the report by stating:
"I had somehow ended up considering people who use the food bank as different than me. But one of the realizations I made when I started talking to people was just how many similarities there are between us. If just a couple of things were to be changed, anyone could easily be in their position. While I may have heard it before, I finally understood and experienced first-hand that poverty and hunger can strike at any time."
The stigma we associate with people who rely on social services needs to change. Canada is a wealthy country, with a backbone rooted in social services. We pride ourselves on our universal healthcare, friendly disposition, and commitment to peace and justice. It is time we stop judging other's for things that may be out of their control, and look to one another with compassion and empathy.
By working together to understand poverty and chronic hunger in our communities, we can accurately pinpoint the causes of both, and come up with innovative solutions to ensure every Canadian has a hot meal at the end of the day, and their own bed to sleep in at night.
By: Erin Fotheringham, Development and Operations Coordinator with the Ontario Association of Food Banks