There is nothing like food to bring people together. The holiday season is rich with traditions around the kitchen table that strengthen our families and communities. Yet for many these traditions are under threat from a broken food system that leaves people hungry.
It's a sad reality that as we gather with our families and friends this holiday season to share a meal, there are far too many who will go hungry. Food bank use in Ontario hit a record high in 2012 -- 412,998 individuals visited an Ontario food bank in March alone. Children represented 38.7 per cent or 159,918 of these users. In the past year, 1,123,500 people in the GTA alone used a food bank. This is unacceptable.
We can all make a difference right now. I encourage everyone to make a holiday donation to your local food bank. I am dropping off a pile of donations from our holiday food drive tomorrow.
But this is not enough. We need to address the root causes of poverty that lead to hunger, and to do this we need a comprehensive plan and committed political leadership.
The province has the financial resources to reduce poverty and pollution even in these tough economic times. It's a matter of priorities. Right now, Ontario lacks the political leadership to establish the right budget priorities to get the job done.
We also need to make sure we have vibrant local sustainable farms. As the largest employer in Ontario, the food and farming sector is a driver of economic success and enriches our quality of life.
Unfortunately, Ontario's ability to feed itself is in decline because we are losing farmers and farmland. The average of age of farmers is going up and the number of young people farming is going down. According to Stats Canada 48.3 per cent of farmers are over 55 and only 8.2 per cent are under 35. The province is losing farmland at an alarmingly unsustainable rate -- 650,000 acres in the past five years. That is equivalent to losing around 85 per cent of Toronto's land mass every year. This is alarming when only 5.6 per cent of Ontario's land is suitable for growing food.
Ontario needs a Food and Farming Strategy to reverse these trends. It is essential that we develop support programs, regulatory reforms, and land use planning laws that preserve family farms and farmland. We need incentives to reward farmers for good land stewardship practices.
We also need the Ontario government to commit to local food purchasing programs to support farmers and access to healthy local food. Investments in a healthy school food program, for example, help develop lifelong good eating habits, improve health and make connections between local farmers and schools. Food sharing programs like the Good Food Box should be expanded and targeted to priority populations and neighbourhoods.
A healthy food system benefits our economy, health and communities. It enriches our quality of life. Let's put reducing hunger and a strong local sustainable food system at the top of our wish list for 2013.
Original farm image licensed under Creative Commons from David Sky