For 15 years and counting, more than 700,000 people have accessed Canadian food banks each and every month because they don't have enough food for themselves and their families. This is a problem that shows no signs of going away, with food bank use currently hovering at record levels.
Food Banks Canada's HungerCount report shows that the food bank network acts as an unofficial Canadian safety net, trying to fill the gaps left by low-wage jobs and radically inadequate provincial social assistance programs.
Millions of Canadians are working in low-paying jobs that just don't pay the bills: seven in every 10 households who have trouble putting food on the table are working.
For those unable to work, social assistance offers a level of support that is plainly insufficient to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens -- a single adult on social assistance must find a way to live on a meagre $8,000 a year. The only certainties in such a situation are anxiety, fear, hunger and ill health.
Social Assistance is Broken
It has been clear for many years that welfare is a broken system. A person must be at the brink of destitution to qualify for the program, and it can be very difficult to climb out of poverty once one is in the system. The administrative bureaucracy is extremely difficult to navigate, and stigmatization of those in need is widespread. The system seems beyond repair.
The time has come for our governments to dismantle what has become an understaffed, stressed and ineffective system that hurts more than it helps. There are several viable models for a guaranteed annual income that would eliminate the bureaucracy, the intrusiveness and the stigma associated with welfare.
Guaranteed Income Offers a New Approach
It is encouraging to see the federal government examining a guaranteed income, and we hope the ensuing discussion will open more Canadians' eyes to the severe difficulties that too many Canadians are facing. It is clear that a new approach is desperately needed.
As this discussion is getting off the ground, there are several steps governments can take right away to improve supports for vulnerable Canadians. For example, welfare benefits should have a logical relationship with regional costs of living -- currently, the cost of food in remote northern communities is roughly double the cost of food in the south, yet welfare benefits are very similar across the country.
Provincial governments can also improve supports for low-income Canadians by unlinking non-cash benefits from social assistance (for example, health and dental care, affordable housing subsidies), and making these available to all low-income households, including those employed in low-wage work.
This has important implications for equity, for helping people enter and remain in the job market, and for helping to end our country's over-long reliance on food banks as a stand-in when government supports fail.
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The next time you go grocery shopping, check to see if the store is collecting any items for local food banks, says Kathy Murphy, corporate affairs director at Kraft Canada. "It takes five minutes to buy something, so why not donate it? If you're shopping for peanut butter, buy two and donate the other," she says.
During the year (especially during the holiday season), food banks need volunteers to sort, manage and give out food, Murphy says. If you have five hours to spare, gather a group of friends or co-workers and head to your local food bank. "It's the time of year when food banks receive large donations and they need help to sort it out," she says.
If you have a week off during the holidays, Murphy suggests organizing a food drive at your holiday party or even one at the office. Giving people a week gives them enough time to mobilize and collect donations, she adds.
When you have five weeks, think long-term: Every week when you go grocery shopping, try to save one item to donate. "Have the goal to fill a hamper and donate this to a food bank," Murphy says.
One of the biggest issues for Canadian food banks is the ability to meet the growing demands and needs of serving people in the long run, Murphy says. If you have five months and want to volunteer with a food bank, Murphy recommends talking to them about meeting their capacity needs and working towards one long-term goal. For example, you could organize a fundraiser or help the organization look for sponsors or partnerships.
Follow Shawn Pegg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shawnpegg