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Despite the hard work of 60,000 food aid programs in Canada (that's four for every one grocery store!), Canada is in a hunger crisis, with hunger rates higher than ever before. Where did this problem come from? Why hasn't our food aid system fixed the problem? And what other solutions could better provide for our neighbours in need?

Mazon's Executive Director, Izzy Waxman, is this year's Social Justice Scholar in Residence at Congregation Darchei Noam. Watch her answer these questions and break shocking news on hunger in 2022 to the congregation at a recent Shabbat morning service:

Full text:

I’d like to start us off with a story:

Maryam, a mother of 3 school-age children, moved to Canada to join her brother after her husband died in her home country. She works as a house cleaner when she can, but her schedule is limited by her children’s daycare hours, and often she can only earn enough to cover their care and her rent, with little left over. There are days when there’s enough to feed her children but not herself, and she feels alone in her hunger and her grief.

She’s been in Canada for over a year when she finds out about her local food bank. She is welcomed with open arms by a volunteer who speaks her language, and provided with an abundant hamper of foods, both fresh and non-perishable, that she can use to feed her boys something healthy for once – food provided by a local church’s food drive. She is connected with an after-school program that can watch her children while she picks up more hours, and a grief counselor who can support her and her children through the loss of their father. She cries with relief and joy on her way home on the phone to her brother, and her children are over the moon at new snacks in their lunchboxes.

Maryam is not a real person, but there are many real people who share her struggles. Unfortunately, there are fewer than you might expect who share her happy ending – in many ways, fewer and fewer all the time.

But let me introduce myself – My name is Izzy Waxman, and I am the Executive Director of Mazon Canada, the Jewish Response to hunger. On behalf of the Jewish community, Mazon supports hundreds of food aid programs across country, from Iqaluit to Newfoundland to coastal BC, with the resources they need to better care for both Jewish and non-Jewish people in need - people like Maryam and her children. And as someone who has devoted many years of my life to food aid and fighting hunger , I’m here to pop some bubbles of fantasy we like to hold about Canada’s food aid system in 2022.

Let’s talk about the history of food banks.

There were no food banks in the 1950s. A food bank is not just a place where you go to pick up food. In technical terms that is a food pantry; a food bank is a larger institution that collects all possible rescued or donated food to distribute to food pantries, drop-ins, community centers, etc across a whole region, a county or municipality or even province.

As long as there have been kind people and poor people, there have been soup kitchens and food pantries. The thing that that is new is the food bank, these massive centralizing bodies that emerged only in the 1980s. how did this happen? what was going on economically that made this rise in food banks necessary?

Starting after the Second World War, strong systems of social welfare were built across Canada. From the 40s through the 70s, provinces and the federal government increasingly shared the costs of ensuring that citizens were given the bare minimum opportunities to make a decent life for themselves, althoug h discriminatory exceptions were often made on the basis of race, gender, etc - but in the 1980s, when a wave of privatization and neoliberalism hit that was not unique to Canada, many of these programs were limited or cut completely.

In 1984, Brian Mulroney pledged in his campaign for Prime Mininster that universal family allowances and pensions for all were “a sacred trust not to be tampered with” - and yet, once in power, severe budget cuts had affected supports for families and children, seniors, affordable housing, employment training, EI and more. Nearly every program supporting low-income people was clawed back. By 1993, federal spending was down 25% - but there had been no serious assault on the budget deficit, even though Ottawa was by then taking in more in taxes than it spent on programs.

The federal Family Allowance was eliminated. The Old Age Security Plan was limited for the middle class. EI was made harder to access, and available for shorter times.

Darchei Noam is an incredible congregation that contains within its membership, and in the audience today, many valiant activists and organizers who I’m sure remember not only the headlines as these policies rolled out, but the desperation they felt as dystopic visions of poor people, abandoned by the state, stretched on into the future. They knew then the problems that this would create. And they set about to change them.

While political advocacy was necessary to reverse these sadistic and ineffective austerity measures, there were also moths to feed – today. And so food pantries and hot meal programs began collaborating, pooling resources to access bigger spaces, bulk pricing. Food aid grew from stroefronts to warehouses. Thousands and thousands of good people rolled up their sleeves and built the infrastructure that the state wouldn’t, telling themselves, ‘Just a little bit longer. Just until the next election. Just until the next budget announcement. Just a little more.”

When Food Banks Canada incorporated in 1989, they included a three-year sunset clause – an assumption that the need for this pseudo-governmental infrastructure would be over by 1991.

But despite their efforts, a future without the necessity of food banks has not arisen.

The unfortunate truth is that as I stand before you today, Canada is in the midst of the most desperate crisis of hunger of recent history – believe it or not, worse even than at the peak of the pandemic lockdowns. Between food banks, hot meal drop-ins, community dinners at places of worship, school and after school nutrition programs and more, a network of more than 60,000 food aid programs work to feed Canadians – four for every one grocery store.

And unfortunately for Maryam, 40 years after these austerity measures took hold, things don’t always go as smoothly as my earlier story. Despite the best efforts of strong volunteers, non-profit staff, and communities, food banks are not, and never will be, a solution to food insecurity.

Before I detail the problems, I also want to remind you that as things stand, food aid programs are critical and life-changing. There are many Maryams out there, crying with joy and relief on the way home with a box of food. I work hard every day to make sure I can give that feeling to one more person, and one more, and one more.

But still, 5.8 million Canadians went food insecure last year – and increase from 4.5 million before the pandemic. That number doesn’t even include some of the people most likely to be food insecure, like homeless people, or Indigenous people living on reserve, or people in the far North.

That number includes three levels of food insecurity that we talk about in the sector – mild, moderate, and severe. Mild food insecurity means that at least once in a month, they’ve worried about running out of food and/or had limited food selection due to a lack of money. Severe food insecurity means they miss meals, reduce food intake, and even go days without food.

The first major problem with food banks is this: While those 60,000 programs serve all of these people, food banks and food pantries realistically only help people at the furthest extreme: When Food Banks Canada measures food pantry visits annually in March, there were 1.5 million visits this year. That’s up 36% from before the pandemic, when there were a “mere” 1.1 million.

Does that mean there are 1.5 million severely food insecure people in Canada? Unfortunately not. This measurement only tells us how many people actually visited a food pantry – not how many people called in a moment of crisis and were turned away. If Maryam called today, in many places she’d likely be put on a waitlist, or sent on an endless and humiliating loop of referrals to programs that all say they can’t help.

Another sobering thing to know about food banks is that, while an increasing number work hard to provide high-quality food to their communities, the sector is desperately under-funded compared to the the level of need – so most hampers will provide at most a few days of food, designed to band-aid the problem for half a week at the end of the month when rent is due. But for a growing number of people the problem isn’t a once-a-month issue – it's a chronic problem, and a monthly or biweekly hamper isn’t enough to ‘solve’ the problem by giving them access to enough nutritional food. Even after support, they are still food insecure.

Plus, many food banks almost entirely rely on donated or rescued food – which can be inconsistent. Maryam might not be crying with relief if she’s sent home with miscellaneous items like a bottle of barbeque sauce, two single-serving portions of microwavable rice, dry pasta with no sauce, and dehydrated mushrooms. There’s no meal she can cook with those ingredients. There’s no use for salad dressing if you can’t afford the lettuce. There’s no point to ingredients that her children, still unused to most Western food, won’t eat.

While most food aid programs supplement donated or rescued food with purchased food to try to ensure decent quality hampers for people in need, they’re caught in the same inflationary bind as their clients: Food simply costs more now than it did a year ago. They have more mouths to feed, and their dollars go less far.

In short, our food bank system, a piecemeal and patchwork quilt of disconnected programs all struggling to collaborate while also helping their communities, help a small percentage of the most vulnerable people just a little bit – but the system that created this poverty and instability remains untouched.

Paul Taylor, outgoing ED of FoodShare, says “Despite the fact that Canada is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, in which the right of all people to food and to feed themselves in dignity is entrenched, we have for years relied on the charitable sector, food banks in particular, to fulfill the state’s obligation to meet this right.”

With food prices inflating over summer, that 1.5 million visits in March has likely ballooned by Fall – and still likely underrepresents the number of people who are suddenly severely food insecure. Their pantries are bare. Their plates are empty. And at this moment in Canadian history, when they call 911, no ambulance is coming – the food banks are full with thousands of others like them.

And I have one further piece of bad news for you: Hunger kills, even in wealthy Canada. While it’s rare to see someone here starve to death, sunken skin over visible bones, hunger kills in a thousand other ways that disguise themselves as other things. Recent Canadian data shows that severe food insecurity is associated with higher mortality across all causes of death except cancers – death rates were 50% increased for severly food-insecure people. For example: You are more likely to die in surgical recovery if you are food-insecure. You are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and less likely to survive an infectious disease or an accidental injury. If you’re severely food insecure, your life expectancy is almost a decade shorter than a food-secure person’s. These health issues and early deaths mean less wealth is accumulated in a generation, leaving less to pass on, contributing to generational poverty.

So what am I to do, as the Executive Director of a food aid community foundation? Fundraise like a demon, for one thing – fundraise like lives depend on it, because they do. Scream about this food aid crisis from the rooftops, begging others to do the same. Amplify the voices of the people choosing between food and rent, food and medication.

And I’m proud to tell you that Mazon’s slogan is true: When Canadians go hungry, the Jewish community cares. This year, in response to this unprecedented crisis, Mazon ran the most successful Rosh HaShanah campaign in our history, and are allocating an equally unprecedented sum of one million dollars this year, supporting over 200 food aid programs across Canada – you should see our map of partners, it’s a beautiful thing.

These programs represent the labour of thousands and thousands of people – good people, hardworking people, who sweat blood to do right for their communities. This year, we received more requests for support than ever in history, and we’re happy that we’re announcing our complete list of recipients this month.

This list includes school meals for students building brighter futures, and programs that check in on isolated seniors. It includes small-town food pantries that refuse to say no to anyone, even if it means their staff is in personal debt from getting one more bag of groceries, and another one, and another one. It includes programs that take Indigenous youth out on the land with Elders, learning to hunt and fish and forage to provide for their families and communities, healing the wounds of colonialism as they connect to tradition.

For the first time this year, we’re tracking which programs are run ‘by and for’ communities themselves, where they highest levels of decision-making include the voices of the people they serve, valuing leadership that often faces philanthropic discrimination like Black, Indigenous, or newcomer leadership.

We estimate our support this year will provide 250,000 meals, or an average of 600 meals a day across the country to people of all ages, ethnicities, faiths and abilities, a tangible way that we collectively enact our Jewish values.

This funding will help some programs feed for people; at others, it will help them provide some fresh produce or proteins alongside their basic staples. At others, it means guaranteed staples are available alongside the miscellaneous donations. Each and every one is different.

But there’s more work to do. Mazon was founded in 1986, in that first wave of claw-backs, on three strategic pillars: to advocate for policy reforms that would prevent hunger and poverty, to educate the Jewish community on the realities of poverty and what they can do about it, including policy solutions, and lastly to support that emergent network of emergency food aid programs as a temporary last resort.

I’ve spoken to our early leadership – founding board members, the first EDs. While they’re proud that Mazon is still committed to fighting this fight, they’re gutted that anyone, 36 years after they founded Mazon in crisis, still needs to have my job.

But those austerity measures are still in place. Minimum wages are wildly out of touch with cost of living. Senior, disability and family supports are starvation-level compared to food costs. Did you know that in Ontario, the maximum disability support you can receive is about $1200 a month – when Toronto’s average rent for a studio apartment is $1700?

So the second critical thing I have to do beyond fundraising for emergency food aid should be obvious by now, and I hope you all will join me: We have to advocate for the return of the social safety net. We have to demand of our politicians that the safety of low-income people be their highest priority, above the interests of large corporations and wealthy individuals. We have to support people who organize for better wages. We have to demand that when social reforms return, they’re inclusive of all in need, without the racist barriers of the past.

This position is not radical, and it is not new. Almost every national hunger organization has a policy platform or list of demands – the solutions are well-researched and easily available:

  • Food Banks Canada advocates for a minimum income floor beneath which no Canadian can fall, affordable housing interventions, and the return of expanded EI qualifications.

  • PROOF, Canada’s leading hunger policy think tank, recommends increases in welfare benefits and minimum wages.

  • Community Food Centres Canada demands the collection of race-based data on food insecurity to respond to the alarming inequalities we know to exist, especially in Black and Indigenous communities.

  • The Coalition for Healthy School Food has fought for years for Canada to start a guaranteed national school nutrition program, following the lead of every single other G7 country.

That’s why Mazon is currently recruiting experienced advocates for an Advocacy Committee, chaired by Darchei Noam’s own Laurel Rothman, and once we’re underway in 2023, recruiting people at any level of experience to volunteer with us.

And it’s why when I go to work each day, it’s with this vision in mind: a Canada where those who work are paid fairly, enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on their families’ plates compared to their local cost of living. Those who are out of work are resourced enough to stay afloat through an employment gap, cared for as they learn a new skill or trade if necessary. And those who cannot work are provided with the necessities not only to stay sheltered and fed, but to be cared for in comfort and safety.

I hold a vision of a world where someone’s race, gender, disabilities, or immigration status should not make them more likely to go hungry than anyone else.

The problems are severe, but the solutions are obvious. And as much as I’m feverishly proud of Mazon Canada’s work to feed the hungry, over 36 years and still today, I know that we’re increasingly a drop in the bucket compared to the crashing tsunami of wealth inequality.

But our Jewish tradition teaches us that each have a role to play in perfecting this broken world – that with each act of compassion, we make the world more compassionate, and with each act of strength, we make our communities stronger. In the mystical Jewish tradition, we know that our acts change the world whether we see the effects or not in our lives – these acts change the heavenly realms, which in turn change our own.

And so I know and believe that the work that those activists who built strong social welfare programs from the 40s to the 70s, those that fought austerity programs from the 80s today, those that have since passed or have retired from the fight or who are still fighting – even on this eve of hunger crisis, their work is not lost.

I carry it with me, a north star guiding us towards a better world. Their work has saved countless lives, and continues to. I know their efforts will not be in vain because this more perfect world is coming. I am building it every day.

So while questions may arise about how we get from this dark world to a brighter one, I ask this of you: Do not give up hope. Make demands of your leadership, and think about low-income people when you vote. Get angry and stay angry. But dream, dream of utopian futures – Dream of fresh baked bread and overflowing bowls. Dream of community gardens in full bloom. Dream of people resourced and empowered to find their own futures – fulfilling work and fulfilling rest.

Dream with me of a future beyond food banks, a future where hunger is cured at its source: poverty.

Somewhere out there, a future Maryam will be grateful you did.

Shabbat shalom, and thank you.


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