At a recent public forum in Victoria, B.C. about the right to food, the first audience question was about federal politics and the October election, which put the panelists in an awkward position.
"We all work for charities that are very non-partisan and would never suggest that you vote in any particular way," said Laura Track, counsel for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, alluding to federal laws that restrict what organizations with charitable status can say.
The June 2 panel included Peggy Wilmot from the advocacy group Faith in Action, Roberta Bell from the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, Rudi Wallace from the Mustard Seed food bank, and Stephen Portman from the Together Against Poverty Society. A similar event with different panelists is planned for Vancouver on June 24.
Track did allow, "I agree that it's a political issue for sure, and should be an issue in the next election."
As the author of a soon-to-be-released report, Hungry for Justice: Advancing a Right to Food for Children in BC, she clearly sees ending hunger as a top priority. The report details rising food insecurity in Canada, critiques the treatment of hunger as a matter for charities to deal with, and considers what it would mean to recognize the right to food as a human right.
"The right to food is clearly protected in international human rights agreements that Canada has signed and agreed to uphold," wrote Track. "But what does it mean to have a 'right' to something when that right so often goes unfulfilled?"
Nearly 850,000 people visited food banks in Canada in March 2014, according to statistics cited by Track's report. Half of the households that food banks helped that month included children.
Some 1.7 million Canadian households experienced food insecurity in 2012, Track wrote, citing Statistics Canada's Canadian Community Health Survey. The figure is likely an undercount because the response rate was low in poorer communities and the survey excluded First Nations people living on reserves, she noted.
Track's report rejects a reliance on charities to relieve hunger. "Food insecurity is a result of economic insecurity," she wrote. "In affluent societies like Canada, it is first and foremost a problem of income poverty and inequality, not an inadequate food supply."
For the report, researchers interviewed people in six B.C. communities who pointed to solutions such as increasing social assistance rates, raising the minimum wage and reducing the cost of other necessities like housing, transportation and child care.
Panelists at the Victoria event agreed. Bell, who represented the friendship centre, said that many of the families she works with struggle to afford to eat, despite receiving income subsidies.
Wilmot, whose church group runs a food bank, said that faith communities are shrinking and in five years will be unable to do as much as they do now. It's up to governments to make sure people's basic needs are met, she said.
Despite working for a food bank, Wallace, from the Mustard Seed, said he believes food banks and the charity model are highly inefficient and don't work to feed people. "We exist because government has outsourced that responsibility to the non-profits."
By voting for politicians who promise low taxes, people make cuts to social supports necessary, he said. "Canadians have allowed this to happen. We have made decisions through either voting or not voting."
Portman from TAPS noted that welfare rates in B.C. haven't risen since 2007, and that by passing laws that fail to provide people with sufficient assistance, the government is legislating hunger. It should be illegal for the government to deny someone their right to food, he said.
Recently asked about the provincial rates, Michelle Stilwell, who as the B.C. minister of social development and social innovation is responsible for the welfare system, said there's no plan to raise them.
What's on party platters?
While the panelists declined to talk about partisan politics, some audience members offered their perspectives.
Frances Litman, the Green Party candidate for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, suggested that audience members look at her party's Vision Green platform. The document includes a section on eliminating poverty through the introduction of a guaranteed livable income.
Global Public Affairs, a government relations firm, has compiled the main food and agriculture proposals from the three major parties. The Conservatives focus on food safety, while the Liberals highlight food safety, better labelling and healthy eating education, the firm notes on its website.
The NDP make a point to identify food as a right. According to Global, "The NDP have called for a comprehensive policy on food security and food sovereignty which profiles access to healthy foods as a fundamental human right."
The NDP's 2013 policy book also advocates for increasing the Canada Social Transfer payments from the federal government so that provinces and territories can enhance their welfare programs.
Graham Riches, the retired director of the school of social work at the University of British Columbia and a long time critic of food charity, was at the Victoria event.
He noted that the first two priorities in Canada's Action Plan for Food Security published in 1998 recognized that there is a right to food and that reducing poverty is key. The country has since slipped backwards, he said.
"This meeting is really pivotal," he told the small crowd. Riches said he feels as though Canada is on the cusp of an historic shift that he's waited 30 years to happen. "It is about income," he said. "It's absolutely about income."
Track said that she hopes the right to food in Canada will one day be tested in court. Such a case would likely focus on children, she said, since they need proactive support to fill their needs, not just for the government to get out of the way.
Laura Track will speak about "A Right to Food in Canada" at 7 p.m. on June 24 at the Carnegie Community Centre Theatre at 401 Main Street in Vancouver. Joining her are panelists Paul Taylor from Gordon Neighbourhood House, Doris Chow from the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables Project, Gil Aguilar from the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition and Migrant Workers Dignity Association, and Graham Riches, the retired director of UBC's school of social work.