The Guardian 15 June, 2005

Food banks:
product of capitalist failure

Michelle Fuller

Once upon a time there was something in Canada called a Social Safety Net. This net was spun from taxes paid by all the population according to their ability to pay, and woven from a general public commitment to a "just society" in which nobody was to be denied the basic needs of food, shelter, and healthcare. This vision included equal access to education and a belief that everyone had a contribution to make, no matter what their ability or country of origin.

Of course, the "just society" wasn’t really that simple. In reality, Canada was always a class-divided country. Our social advances have been won through bitter struggles by workers and the poor. These gains also reflected conscious decisions by sections of the ruling class to surrender some ground in order to head off a shift towards more radical politics by the working class. Still, we achieved remarkable progress towards broad social benefits from the late 1930s until the 1970s.

If the social safety net sounds today like a drug induced dream, you may be of the generation that has been convinced, by a succession of governments who pay court to the powerful transnational corporations who run the global economy, that society holds no responsibility for its members. In the famous words of Margaret Thatcher, "there is no such thing as society", only individuals and the market. Distribution of goods and services is the responsibility of the market with the goal of providing a profit to the shareholders of corporations, and the benefits trickle down to (or upon), the population in general. If some are missed, then the poor unfortunates should be grateful for whatever charity can provide for them.

There are always surplus products in the market, including food items past their best before date, misshapen, off colour, or overstock. Some is deposited into food banks, not out of generosity to the hungry, but to ensure the distribution system remains free flowing. Food banks also solicit and receive food donations from the public.

Market system does not work

Even these supplies are insufficient, because the market system does not work. Or rather, it does work by meeting its main goal of a return to the shareholders, while an increasing proportion of the population is unable to meet their basic needs of food, shelter and healthcare from their employment wages. Every humanly occupied place on earth is challenged to become drawn into the monstrous, capitalist system.

Amongst other things, this means lowering real wages and reducing taxes on corporations and wealthy citizens, which in turn reduces revenues for governments to provide essential services. People are forced to pay for necessities such as transportation, education, healthcare and housing out of their food budget, landing them on the doorstep of a food bank.

Under such circumstances, a food bank cannot provide a healthy nutritious diet, appropriate to the age and culture of the recipient. People who are forced to rely on the food bank get sick more often, which makes it even harder to maintain employment and family life.

Not unlike other provinces, British Colombia’s food banks have gone from a temporary measure to deal with an economic slump, to an institutionalised second tier of the welfare system. The reality is that food banks run out of food, cannot guarantee nourishing diets, and have to turn people away.

Food banks are unable to solve the problem of hunger. The charity they provide helps shield governments from scrutiny, and shield the public from the severity of the problem. Last year’s Hunger Count Report found that 41.7 per cent more children needed emergency food in British Colombia in 2004 than in 2003.

"In one year, to see that kind of jump, 8000 more children using the food banks, that’s unconscionable in a province like ours," said Carole James (Globe and Mail, Nov 10, 2004).

Policies behind increased demand

James blames Liberal policies. The Campbell government has made it tougher to qualify for welfare and to collect benefits for more than two years.

Human Resources Minister Susan Brice denies those reforms have increased the demand on food banks. "It’s a little misleading for Carole James to basically imply that it’s something unique to British Colombia. It’s a North America wide issue."

We cannot expect advances in food security to be made by either of these political parties, which have used the report as a platform for early campaigning. What is being ignored in the media is the obvious. The alarming growth of food bank use in Canada over the past 15 years points to deepening poverty and hunger in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

Food banks are indicators and symbols of the ongoing failure of neo liberal [economic rationalist] social policies, the state’s rejection of people’s rights, and proof of the deterioration of Canada’s publicly funded social safety net. For everyone who cannot afford safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods, the right to food provides a key strategy for overcoming hunger and achieving food security.

Gordon Campbell’s Liberals and Canada’s federal government must be challenged to ensure domestic compliance with Canada’s ratification of the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Both state the right to food and adequate nutrition. British Colombia’s deficient income support program and minimum wage policies, combined with scarce social housing and expensive childcare, are explicit violations of Canada’s commitment to international law.

Food banks exist to house surplus, and to shield governments from their responsibilities. Food banks are growing because the needs of the population are increasing as the gap between the wealthy and poor widens. The clients who visit food banks are everyone. Your families, neighbours, women, men and children, the working poor, those on assistance and disability, and at times the homeless.

Twenty years ago we did not have food banks, but this should not imply that people did not go hungry. Food banks were spearheaded by those concerned for the hungry in a political atmosphere that has led to an increase in isolation and a lessening of community. Even today there are individuals who have excess food from their gardens, orchards, and trips to the market but are either unaware or unwilling to aid their neighbour.

Food banks are not a necessity, only a product of a failing capitalist system. Grassroots movements are important: community kitchens, buying co-ops, gleaning programs, and community gardens all help reduce food insecurity. However, food insecurity and the multitude of connected problems will never disappear until the private ownership of the means of production also disappears.

People’s Voice, Canada’s leading communist newspaper

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