Statement made on 26 April 2012 by Senator Fernand Robichaud
Hon. Fernand Robichaud:
Honourable senators, today I would like to talk about the important role that food banks play in the lives of the poor.
Food banks exist because the government's efforts do not meet people's needs. They exist for another reason, too: because there are still people in this country who deeply believe in sharing with their fellow human beings.
In most of our communities, food banks rely on volunteers for their survival and ongoing operation. Food and clothing banks enable many families and individuals to get through tough times. Since they first appeared in urban centres in Western Canada, food banks have opened up across the country.
There are now more than 800 food banks in Canada and over 3,000 food programs. Food Banks Canada's 2011 report — I believe all honourable senators have received a copy of this report — describes a vast network that offers a real helping hand to many families and individuals.
These are places where the less fortunate can go to get food for themselves and their children. Some food banks also distribute furniture and clothing. They sometimes even offer nutrition classes and organize collective or community kitchens. Volunteers sometimes get together to demonstrate to underprivileged families how to cook healthy, balanced meals. Also, just across the river in Gatineau, for instance, there are volunteers who meet up to prepare meals that are then distributed.
Why does someone go to a food bank? Because poor people simply cannot survive on what they earn or what they receive in social assistance. More often than not, exceptional circumstances force people to turn to food banks for help.
Over the past year, nearly a million people — 851,000 including 322,000 children — have had to turn to food banks. That is 26 per cent more than before the 2008-09 recession.
What does that mean, you might ask? These numbers symbolize a sad reality: the economic recovery is not going as well as planned and more and more people are still having difficulty making ends meet.
I would also note that the recovery, if it is happening at all, is not happening equitably. Not only are more vulnerable people paying the price, but the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.
In New Brunswick in 2011, 18,539 people used the services of a food bank, and 34 per cent of those people were children under 18. This means that the parents of 5,302 children counted on food banks to feed their families. That is nearly 20 per cent more than before the recession. The numbers from New Brunswick are comparable to those in other Canadian provinces.
Who are these people who use food banks? The profiles are varied and there is not a single typical profile. There are families with children; there are the working poor, in other words, people who work, but do not earn enough money to pay for their basic needs. There are also individuals receiving social assistance and people on a fixed income, including people with disabilities and seniors. There are even people who had steady jobs, but whose lives, for a variety of reasons, unravelled and they ended up on the street.
I recently visited Vestiaire Saint-Joseph in Shediac, New Brunswick, and I witnessed the absolutely extraordinary work of the volunteers there. The directors of Vestiaire Saint-Joseph informed me that in 2010-2011, relief was given to 1,070 people, 405 of whom were children. This total number of people includes 470 families, a quarter of which are single parent families.
The 75 volunteers at this agency worked 12,431 hours over the past year. These volunteer workers are like the support beams of a wall that protects the most vulnerable. These volunteers are people who are devoted to collecting and handing out food; people who collect, repair and organize clothing and furniture for their clients; people who know how to welcome with respect and empathy those who come asking for help. These dedicated volunteers work hard serving others, with respect and compassion.
Honourable senators, allow me to add something here. In honour of National Volunteer Week, which was from April 15 to 21, 2012, I want to pay tribute to all our volunteers across the country who devote themselves with generosity, commitment and energy to making a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. I commend them and encourage them to keep up the good work.
Large food banks raise funds and rely on community generosity to survive. Many socially responsible businesses in south-eastern New Brunswick donate to an umbrella organization, Food Dépôt Alimentaire, which supplies food banks in the region.
Turkey Farmers of Canada is another socially responsible organization. In cooperation with Food Banks Canada, it provided a turkey dinner to 6,000 families in need at Thanksgiving. Turkey Farmers of New Brunswick was proud to participate in the program.
Honourable senators, hunger impedes normal childhood development. For poor children, being hungry does not mean missing the occasional meal. Unfortunately, for poor children, being hungry is a way of life. It is what they face every day, along with the many negative consequences of malnutrition.
These children experience significant physical, social and cognitive developmental delays. Children suffering from hunger can be more hyperactive, aggressive, irritable and even anxious. Their school attendance is spotty, and their academic outcomes can be poor as a result. Unfortunately, poor children are more likely than others to be drawn into the world of crime.
When I visited the Vestiaire Saint-Joseph, I learned that over a quarter of the 470 families the organization helps are single-parent families.
Most single-parent families are headed by women. Those who manage to find work to support their families are often part of the working poor.
The working poor have to make many decisions every day: pay the rent or buy the groceries? Buy prescriptions or food for the children? Put gas in the car to seek health care or put food on the table? The working poor have so many heart-wrenching decisions to make. Food banks are there to help people and to give them hope that they will escape poverty.
Often, people are thrust into poverty from one day to the next for many different reasons. Car repairs, a rent increase, a sudden illness, the loss of employment or a work accident can wreak havoc on their modest budget, which is already very tight. Even delays in employment insurance cheques can force the working poor to go to a food bank. I was told about a poor worker and his family who ended up on the street because they could not pay their rent on time.
Marital separation also contributes to poverty. In some cases, there is no support being paid or, if there is, it may not be enough. Sometimes delays in receiving support payments force people to ask for help.
The food banks become lifesavers that prevent poor workers and their families from going under. The food banks provide food, toiletries, diapers and clothing for children and adults. And the money that poor workers save by using food banks can be used to pay for other basic needs, such as housing, utilities, heating and medicine.
Sometimes single women are also forced to turn to food banks to survive. I would like to share with you what one 53-year-old woman said about the support she receives from her local food bank:
I receive $537 a month in social assistance. My rent is $265 a month. After paying my bills, I have nothing left. So I have to come here [to the food bank] every lunch hour, because otherwise, I would not be able to eat every day. I also get my clothes here.
Honourable senators, how many of us could get by on $537 a month or $6,444 a year? Think about it. This is how much money poor families are supposed to survive on. And if you were single with a child, how could you possibly survive on $809 a month or $9,708 a year?
According to 2011 statistics gathered by Vestiaire Saint-Joseph, over 7 per cent of its users are seniors. Unfortunately, in Canada, too many seniors have to turn to food banks to survive: 4.4 per cent in urban settings and 5.7 per cent in rural areas. I will come back to poverty among seniors another time.
In conclusion, honourable senators, there is no doubt that food banks are on the front lines, trying to alleviate the problem of hunger. They were conceived as a temporary measure, but their necessity has caused to them to continue to exist and their numbers are only increasing.
Many people do not realize just how serious a problem hunger is in this country. These are the people and families we do not see. They are there, but we do not see them. We realize they exist only when we go to a food bank, where we see them coming for food.
Unfortunately, there is a popular belief that the people who use food banks do not really need them. To anyone who shares this belief, I would like to say: go and see for yourself. Most of the people at the food bank have been referred there and have real needs.
Honourable senators, I would like to move that further debate on this item be continued at the next sitting of the Senate, when I will finish my remarks.