As rapid inflation and stagnant wages pile up on workers across Canada, the number of people using food banks soared this year. The first nine months of 2022 saw a 24 per cent increase in people accessing food banks compared to 2021. In March 2022, there were 1.46 million visits to food banks across Canada, even though unemployment rates were at a record low in the same month. One-third of these users were children.
The first food bank in Canada opened in Edmonton in 1981. The intent was to temporarily relieve mass hunger during a recession. Since then, over 700 more food banks have opened and demand has shot up, especially over the past three years. Food banks were never built to solve hunger, only to alleviate it in hard times. Now, they are hard-pressed to even provide alleviation.
The most worrying figures in HungerCount, Food Banks Canada’s annual report, are that nearly two-thirds of households on social assistance are food insecure, and 14 per cent of working households are food insecure. These are the highest numbers ever recorded. While inflation has been high across the board, it is much higher for food at 14.5 per cent, and even higher for staples like butter (20 per cent in September) and pasta (44.8 per cent in October). A poll last year found that food banks were stretched to their limits, as 16 per cent of households across Canada adjusted diets or skipped meals in 2021. These figures illustrate a crisis of hunger across the country, and the food banks do not have the resources to deal with this skyrocketing demand.
‘Hunger is an income issue’
Every winter, campaigns for food banks are a staple across the country. The large grocery chains prod customers for donations to “end hunger”. Schools, churches, and charities conduct food drives. These charitable programs meant for temporary hardship have now become a central pillar in propping up the government’s social programs.
The chaos of capitalism forces workers into destitute conditions where even those with jobs are increasingly unable to put food on the table. Food banks have served a purpose to prevent people from starving, but they don’t address the underlying cause of widespread hunger.
Josh Smee, director of the non-profit Food First N.L. in Newfoundland and Labrador, argues that “hunger is an income issue” because people don’t have the money to buy food. This is clearly true, but there are more workers this year who cannot afford food than ever. Why aren’t they making enough money to afford food in the first place?
The Bank of Canada has already made their answer clear: They want the workers to suffer. In the face of this inflationary crisis, they are increasing interest rates to take demand out of the market. For this to happen, they argue that wages need to be kept low, and unemployment needs to rise. When push comes to shove, the Bank of Canada and their policies will always act to protect the capitalist system. The ruling class, however, is not expected to shoulder any of the suffering, as they have been raking in record profits, happily hiking prices in basic necessities.
Smee also said, “The reality of it is that we’ve built a system where private charity is filling in for where the social safety net should be.” While food banks are not making up the gaps from rising inflation, the primary reason for surging demand is the eroding effect inflation has on the purchasing power of wages. As Smee himself said, hunger is an income issue, and workers are not making enough to put food on the table. By asking for more social safety nets, it falls onto the state to pay, which means primarily workers paying for these programs with tax increases or budget cuts elsewhere. The prodding at the grocery belt becomes a shakedown for an indirect “food security tax” by the Canadian state. This is like treating a gunshot wound with a bandage. Instead, the income should be made up by making the bosses pay, out of the profits that they extract from the workers.
To ‘beef up’ or tear down?
Lynn McIntyre, an emeritus professor of community health at the University of Calgary, is involved in food insecurity studies across the country and makes similar claims as Smee. Instead of donating, she says, workers should advocate for “beefing up our current system.” Such a statement forces one to ask: Why don’t our food banks and social programs have the necessary funding to care for our needs, especially when the wealth exists for it to happen?
These grocery chains that guilt Canadians into donating to their charities are the same corporations raking in massive profits while workers starve. Certainly if there is anyone who could “end hunger”, it is the billionaire Weston family, who own Loblaw, and the rest of the Canadian grocery cartel. These are the very same companies that refuse to pay their workers living wages! No amount of donations or social services will bridge the gap between workers and bosses.
As Fightback wrote in June:
“Canada’s “grocery oligopoly” continues to profiteer.
In early March, George Weston Ltd. increased its dividend 9.1 per cent from last year and reported a 15.1 per cent increase in its net earnings. While workers were going hungry, the Loblaws parent company reported a “very good quarter in a retail environment experiencing fewer COVID-19 related restrictions and continued inflationary pressures.”
That same month, Empire Company Ltd. reported an 8.3 per cent increase in sales and also increased its dividend. The Sobeys parent company said it too expects its revenue increases to “offset” rising fuel costs.
Wage-cutting billionaire Jim Pattison was similarly adamant that his Save-On-Foods grocery stores will maintain their profits at all costs. “The cost [of business] is definitely going up in most areas, and we just need to pass it off to the customer,” he told BNN.”
There is undoubtedly enough food being produced to provide for every person. No person should have to starve in Canada while the ultra-wealthy profit off our pain. To fight for a system that takes care of workers requires class struggle! To get some alleviation, we need higher wages, and for that must get organized. Donations and advocacy have not brought meaningful change, so we must demonstrate our strength collectively. If the bosses won’t provide enough wages to buy food, then we must strike for it.
Under capitalism, the wealthy are constantly searching for bandages to treat a failing system. It creates poverty for the working masses so the bosses can live in luxury. No amount of tweaks can repair a system that is rotten to its very core. To eliminate hunger and poverty, we must eliminate capitalism.