Stepping Up To The Plate: ‘The Right To Food’, Not Just Hand-Outs

Food corporations donate millions of dollars each year to food banks. At the same time, they pay their employees such low wages that a great number of them need to use those very same food banks. Does this make sense?

It doesn’t make sense to Dr. Graham Riches, along with a lot of other details about how we feed hungry people in Canada.

At a recent public talk at Peterborough Public Health, hosted by Nourish, in Peterborough, Ontario, Riches, an anti-poverty advocate and hunger expert, provided lots of ‘food for thought’.

Are food banks the answer to food insecurity, he asked. Are they (and the corporations who donate to them) replacing governments as providers of the social safety net, while nothing  is done to address the long-term issues that cause poverty and hunger in the first place, he wondered.

Do food banks institutionalize begging and – while necessary both morally and practically in the short-term — are they helping to prolong food insecurity in the long-term?

Why is it now publicly acceptable to feed donated surplus food that is dependent on corporate food waste as “left-over food for left-behind people”?

And where does the fundamental human ‘Right to Food’ fit into the public policy of  governments which are supposed to be the ‘primary duty bearers’?

Canada has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to food as recognised in the 1948 United Nations International Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements, Riches told the gathering.

“But the welfare state, and particularly the social security system, has been taken over by big food giants, big ag (agriculture) giants, like Cargill . . . like Monsanto, like the big supermarket chains, Nestle, and Pepsi-Cola . . . ,” Riches said.

“This has enabled governments to become indifferent and look the other way, to ignore public health, to ignore public poverty, to ignore a whole range of pressing social issues that we have.”


Dr. Graham Riches

Riches is a retired professor and director of social work at the University of British Columbia who has been writing about food insecurity for 35 years. His most recent book is titled Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and The Right to Food. 


Graham Riches’ latest book

He said he deliberately uses the word ‘hunger’ when talking about food insecurity in rich countries because it represents the “moral vacuum that is at the heart of neoliberalism which we have been experiencing since Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power.”

Food insecurity — inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints — is a serious social and public health problem in Ontario. People who are food insecure cannot afford to buy the food they want or need for good health. Limited incomes are the main reason why people are food insecure in Peterborough: Peterborough Public Health.

Solutions will not come easily, Riches said, but should be tied to the notion that the right to food is an inherent basic human need and fundamental human right —  and governments need to step up to the plate and address the under-lying causes of hunger, and not depend on charity models of emergency food relief (food banks), which only act as band-aids for the symptoms. 

Examples of under-lying causes are high child care costs, lack of affordable housing, low wages and inadequate minimum wages, inadequate social assistance, the dismantling of the welfare state, and denying Indigenous people their hunting rights and taking their land, he said. 

When governments leave food security to corporations, “it’s taking the politics out of hunger,” Riches said. “We are being persuaded that this is a matter that can be solved by food banks . . . while the government is happily looking the other way.” 

Riches also believes it is important for ordinary citizens, and what he calls ‘civil society’, to take a stand and realise they can and should hold governments accountable and influence them to act.

According to the findings of a new Canadian study by Angus Reid Institute released July 17 as part of an examination of poverty, one quarter of respondents said they have recently had to borrow money to buy groceries.

Food Charity Inc.

Donating food and money to food banks makes the big food giants look good. But why do they do it? Is it corporate social responsibility or an investment in branding?

If you look at the corporate logos on the web page of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, you will find close to 30 donors which are large food companies — Loblaws, Monsanto, Sysco, Campbell’s, General Mills, McCains, Nestle, for example, and other corporations like Walmart and Cargill.

“These are running the food safety net in Canada,” said Riches. “This is called corporate social responsibility, but is it? Where are we in our own thinking about poverty and inequality if we leave it to these corporations?”

Food banks constantly need more food as the number of people using them rises, and they need corporate donations of either food or money, Riches explained. The food corporations like to point out they are diverting food from being wasted, and this is seen as a win-win situation. In reality, it shows the failure of the industrial food system, he said, which over-produces, then blames consumers for not buying the over-produced foods, then donates the food, and proclaims it as the solution to food insecurity.

“It sounds like common sense . . . but it is not the answer in the long-term,” said Riches. 

“An enormous amount of food is required (for food banks). The food industry gets a lot of criticism, so this is a way of showing they are solving food problems. In actuality in Canada, only 10% of 1% of all food wasted goes to food banks. It’s a false argument.”

He said food corporations may be donating to food banks out of good will, but, inadvertently or as an unintended consequence, they are benefiting.

“One could argue . . . they do understand how the economic market works and they actually understand from the very beginning that this is good for business.”

“But if they want to be corporately socially responsible . . . then they’ve got to pay the people who work in their industry an adequate wage. Pay your workers a living wage.”

NGOs and charitable organizations are needed to help the most vulnerable, but they need to be adequately funded by governments to fulfill their crucial services, so they don’t have to depend on surplus and wasted food.

Riches also pointed out that the most vulnerable people, due to conditions and issues — even those with “sufficient income in their pockets” — often cannot purchase the food they need. This is where NGOs and charitable organizations are needed, but they need to be adequately funded by governments to fulfill their crucial services, “so they can go to the stores and farms and purchase food they actually need, rather than depending on what happens to be surplus or wasted, and rather than not being able to guarantee what you get today you can get tomorrow.” 

It is well-known that many people in Peterborough City and County are experiencing hunger, thanks to the “robust data” collected by Peterborough Public Health, said Joëlle Favreau, community development and training supervisor with the YWCA Peterborough Haliburton  and manager of Peterborough’s Nourish said, when introducing Riches.

In 2014, 11.9% of Ontario households experienced food insecurity. In the City and County of Peterborough, food insecurity impacts 16.5% or 1 in 6: Peterborough Public Health. 

Close to 30% of households in the Peterborough area with children are food insecure, which is almost double the provincial average, she said.

“If that is not shocking enough, research shows that one in two female lone-parent families are food insecure, compared to one in five in the province. It is reaching an alarming rate here and in the province and nationally,” she continued.

“We know that we are facing an epidemic of food insecurity. I am not exaggerating.”

To see the full presentation of Graham Riches visit: “Hungry Ontarians: Charity, The Right to Food & Public Policy, A Talk by Dr. Graham Riches”. 

By Melodie McCullough

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