This is not a real Union in the way that most people understand unions — we are not organizing paid workers to advocate for fair wages or improved working conditions for themselves. It is a Union in that we are a collective of individuals concerned about the food security of thousands of people across Ontario who are forced to rely on food banks and the volunteers who continue to do this work because the government is abdicating its responsibility.
The Union metaphor is a consciousness raising tool to bring attention to the state of affairs in Ontario and across Canada where increasing numbers of people, including those who are working full-time and not able to afford food, are relying on food banks and charity. It is designed to grab your attention and also reflects the social injustices of poverty — just as unions have historically been born out of situations where injustice and fairness were lacking, we believe that the current emergency meal and food bank scenario we are in today is highly unjust, undignified and unsustainable as a way of meeting the most basic needs of individuals and families in a wealthy province like Ontario.
We're not advocating the closing of food banks, rather we want to make food banks obsolete — unnecessary. This is a very different position than insisting on the closing of food banks. The first step in making them obsolete is being able to realize and admit that charity is not the preferred way to meet the needs of those in food insecure households. What we are facing is not a scarcity of food in Ontario, but a scarcity of income for those who are working in precarious types of employment and for those who must rely on Social Assistance or other forms of fixed income. We are advocating for fair wages and adequate amounts of assistance that allow people to purchase their own food and preserve their dignity.
Volunteers are not complaining as much as they want to know when this crisis will be over, and when will they be able to stop volunteering at a food bank. It is true that most are there because they want to be or wanted to be at one point. But it is also true that many, particularly older volunteers who make up the majority of the volunteers in this sector, would like to be able to step down from years of service but fear for the people who rely on them. They also know that there are not a lot of younger volunteers coming forward to fill their shoes, and they feel obligated to continue.
There are so many invaluable ways that individuals can give back to their community using their skills and their abilities, making relationships with others and meeting needs that otherwise would not be met in the community. Big Brother and Big Sisters, After school Programs, Visiting shut-ins and people in nursing homes, helping with community gardens and eco projects. Being charitable with your time to enhance the life of others in your community is invaluable. But the basic needs of our neighbours and their children (food, a home, education) cannot be relegated to the sporadic and unpredictable nature of charity — it is not humane, safe, healthy or sustainable.
Food banks are not bad, but charity has real limitations. Food Banks are addressing a gap in society and it is the gap that we need to close to remove the need for people to rely on food banks in the first place. And certainly the people that work in them are not "bad." They are helping in one of the only ways they know how but it is a job without an end and when times are tough, the stress and burden of feeling responsible for whether or not families have enough food to survive has simply become too much for many of our volunteers to bear. Particularly those who are elderly bear this burden of responsibility and it is they which make up a growing percentage of the volunteers in the emergency food sector.
Absolutely Not! Food banks are closing where they don't have enough donations. They are forced to limit the amount of food they can provide as the demand increases. We've seen a real increase in the number of working people in positions of precarious employment who are not able to purchase the food they need on their monthly incomes that are forced to rely on the food banks. Also the number of people with college and university degrees has increased due to the lack of opportunities for good jobs that pay the bills. Only 20% of people, who need food, use the food banks, and a vast number of others persist in poverty on their own.
Here's what we hope to achieve:
We will continue this campaign until the awareness of the limitations of charity spurs communities and elected officials to recognize the need to plan for adequate incomes and a food security policy in each province as well at the federal level, to ensure that no one has to rely on charity for food.
We will continue until the province of Ontario specifically recognizes that it can no longer continue to turn a blind eye to the deep poverty that individuals and families on OW and ODSP are confined to living on social assistance rates 60% below the poverty line.
Yes, but those other needs for companionship, community get-togethers, places to meet together, advice and referrals to supports and services, can be provided in other ways, and actually in many communities are provided elsewhere. You don't need people to be reliant on "emergency" food in order to get their other needs for community met. Many communities have meal programs that are open and attended by community members who pay a nominal cost for their meal and enjoy the time with friends and neighbours.
We think the answer to this is obvious. Basic needs are paramount, especially the need for adequate income so that people can house, clothe and feed themselves and their families. Volunteers do have a need to be useful and feel needed, but again, we've outlined many other productive and meaningful ways in which volunteers can share themselves and their talents with the community. One problem is that many are drawn to the emergency food sector because of the critical nature of the service and the obvious needs and that is understandable. But if individuals could provide for themselves in this way because they can afford to, it would free up volunteers to find other meaningful ways to give back to their communities.
What leftover food? — We manufacture a supply of food by asking donors to buy and donate food, and we buy food with donations to make it available to those who need it. If food banks closed tomorrow the only food left would be that which is in the banks right at that time and it could be given to be used in other programs. If we stop the demand for donations, we won't have surplus food. The leftover food from restaurants and events is minimal in comparison to the food that is secured through donations and it is not what's up for discussion here. And the other obvious question here is — why should anyone have to rely on left-over food in the first place? We probably need to do something to address this separate issue of waste but in no way is it legitimate to keep food banks open and keep people in poverty so we have something to do with the leftover food that we as consumers are responsible for. There is also another strong argument that the costs associated with transporting leftover food, not to mention the cost of organizing such initiatives far outweighs the value of the food in the first place.
50 Ways ( Listen to our Song: 50 Ways to Leave your Food Bank). We are not talking about hunger — we're talking about poverty and there are several areas that need to be tackled to reduce poverty and the resulting reliance on emergency food. Advocating for adequate income, good jobs (full time with benefits), a higher minimum wage, adequate social assistance rates, affordable housing, childcare, lower tuition fees for post secondary education and access to social supports. These are a few ways in which we can reduce the incidence of poverty, improve quality of life for a growing group of citizens, and end the reliance of some people on others and charity, for their very survival.
There are real costs associated with any campaign. The donations we seek are to cover costs for print material — brochures, pamphlets and the production of these. We are in no way in competition with others who are donations to purchase food.
Individuals will have adequate wages, social assistance rates will be set to reflect the true costs of living and we will begin to see a steady decline in the reliance on the food bank system.
Stand in solidarity with the food program volunteers of Freedom 90 who are fighting for social justice and the end of reliance on a costly, labour intensive, highly inefficient and unsustainable emergency food system.