12/13/2016 08:16 EST | Updated 12/13/2016 08:16 EST

Food Alone Won't Solve Hunger

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For the last 40 years, we've been sold a lie about how to solve hunger. It's the kind of deception that sounds so right, so convincing, that we don't even ask questions.

We've been told that handing out food to poor, struggling people will fill their need and end their hunger.

It's true that in an emergency like the fires that ravaged Fort McMurray earlier this year, or during war or the myriad of natural disasters that rock our world with regularity, handing out food is the right thing to do. Desperate people in desperate circumstances -- a crisis -- need food right away.

And I'm not saying that the hunger I've seen in my front-line work with low-income communities over the last 20 years -- hunger that affects 4 million of our fellow Canadians -- isn't a crisis. It is. But it's a crisis of a different, longstanding, order. And we've been throwing food at it for a very long time.

We do that by creating new food banks and expanding the ones we already have. While these front-line programs are doing their best, their resources are minimal, the spaces are too often dreary and inadequate, and they often rely heavily on highly processed corporate leftovers. Still, we establish walk-a-thons to raise food and "check-out" hunger at the grocery store. We've created an entire ecosystem of food charity that's so pervasive it makes us feel like we've done our part. It makes us think the problem is solved.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. The number of people unable to put food on their table continues to grow. Food bank users are some the unhealthiest people in the country, battling high rates of type 2 diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. All that work and the problem just gets worse.

So, if food handouts aren't the answer, what is? And how do we counter this widespread misunderstanding about how to create change when it comes to hunger? I believe we start by asking a different question.

Many years ago, Jan Poppiendieck, one of my food movement heroes, told me that how we frame a problem always determines the kind of solution we get. If we say hunger is due to a lack of food, the obvious answer is: Get those people something to eat.

But if we ask what's really at the root of hunger, we discover the answer is more complex. That's because the root of hunger is poverty. The root of hunger is in the 23% drop in income for the lowest-earning Canadians over the last 40 years. It is in low social assistance rates and precarious work. We're not going to solve such persistent problems with donations of canned peas and corn -- no matter how well-meaning. The solution lies elsewhere.

I have a friend named Glenn who's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He grew up in a family that didn't believe in education and he quit school in Grade 9. By then he was already an alcoholic. He hit rock bottom at 23. He was so sick he nearly died. But Glenn was one of the lucky ones. He managed to kick drinking and get his life back on track. Eventually he landed out west and created a successful landscaping business. He had a long-time girlfriend, a nice house. Things were great. Until they weren't.

The army base that was critical to his income closed and his business never recovered. His relationship fell apart and he lost everything. Glenn came back to Toronto and found the only place he could afford was in a bedbug-infested rooming house. He was hungry and depressed. His sense of self-worth was battered.

Glenn turned up at the community food centre where I worked at the time. He kept his eyes on the floor when he picked up some food to take home. When someone offered him a chance to stay for a meal he said no thanks. He was embarrassed. He felt small.

But poor health made it difficult to work and Glenn kept having to come back. Eventually he sat down at the community meal. The dining room was bright, flags from every country in the world hung from the ceiling. Dinner was served to the tables by volunteers on nice plates with real cutlery. The food was delicious. Healthy. Some of it was grown in the community garden. Glenn got to talking, got to know people, and started to volunteer himself. He felt respected, treated with dignity. He wasn't just a number, he was part of a team. And that changed everything.

"Hope, and its sisters, dignity, self-worth and connection, lie at the heart of creating both individual and societal change."

I've seen this over and over at our partner Community Food Centres. People come for the food, but real change happens because of the connections they forge -- growing food in the gardens, cooking in the community kitchens, sharing a meal together in the dining room, volunteering in programs. The people who come through the door are hungry but, even more, they are lonely, disenfranchised, silenced. They are often without hope.

Hope sounds like a soft thing. An intangible. It's something you can't measure or put on a spreadsheet. Yet hope, and its sisters, dignity, self-worth and connection, lie at the heart of creating both individual and societal change.

Over time, Glenn got more and more involved at the centre, and in the civic engagement program, where he learned how to talk to the media and politicians about lived experience and advocate effectively.

It was a powerful learning process, and revelatory to share stories with people in similar circumstances -- to acknowledge together that their poverty and hunger wasn't their fault. Recognizing their experience as part of a system of inequality, a system that's not working in their favour, made them see themselves differently. Together, they began to imagine they could change not just their own lives but the lives of other people in their community.

And that's exactly what they did. One day Glenn and the crew led a march to the office of the local politician. They felt he needed to hear how impossible it was for them to make ends meet before they went on to a larger demonstration at the legislature.

When the crowd reached his office they chanted and sang before handing Glenn a megaphone. Glenn hesitated for a second, then seemed to grow taller, more certain of himself. "I was hungry yesterday and I am hungry today," he said. "And the way this government treats us, I'm going to be hungry tomorrow!"

It was a brilliant, moving moment of clarity. There on the street everyone understood the truth about ending hunger. It was clear that a single meal or a hundred single meals will never solve the hunger crisis. What's needed is not charity, but solidarity.

We must cultivate a sense of community and belonging in our neighbourhoods -- but we can't stop there. We need to take the essential next step, translating our collective wealth into things like affordable child care, subsidized housing and maybe one day a basic income guarantee. These are the kind of public policies that have been shown to diminish poverty and inequality.

These are the supports that emerge from a society that understands itself as connected. It's only by operating in a more public sphere, in deciding to roll up our collective sleeves and getting involved, that we'll be able build a more just country and make hunger history.

This post is adapted from a talk that was delivered at TEDxToronto 2016 on October 27.

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