Dianne Swinemar leans across the desk in her Spartan office at Feed Nova Scotia. She's just been asked how she'd assess the food bank's success in meeting its goal of eliminating chronic hunger and alleviating poverty. "Oh, we've failed," she answers with a bitter laugh, adding that she was hired as executive director in 1991 to shut the Metro Food Bank down within three years. Instead, as the numbers of hungry people grew, the food bank ended up expanding. One day she was driving down the Bedford Highway to the big, refrigerated warehouse feeling excited about the new space. "All of a sudden it hit me," she says. "It's like you are the biggest failure walking the streets of Halifax. Instead of closing something down, look what's been created."
Today, Swinemar runs a sophisticated network with once-a-week deliveries to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters across the province. Feed Nova Scotia supports school breakfast programs and food banks in high schools and universities. It's also part of a national network to which big manufacturers such as Kraft, Nestle, High Liner and McCain donate products that are mis-packaged, near their expiry dates or out of season.
"Every food bank gets their fair share," Swinemar says. "CN Rail transports the food at no cost. So every three to four weeks we can expect a container to be dropped off from a number of national companies." Those donations supplement unmarketable products from local grocery stores and wholesalers as well as surplus food from farmers, bakeries, hospitals, hotels and dairies. Last year, Feed Nova Scotia distributed 2.2 million kilos of food valued at more than $16.6 million. Over the past five years, total food distributed has increased by 83 percent because of the agency's expanded provincial role.
Yet for all that, Swinemar admits, the food bank system isn't meeting people's needs. "The norm is that folks can go to a food bank once a month and they would normally get between three and four days' supply," she says. "It's kind of ironic because even though we all recognize that this is no longer emergency food assistance, we're still operating under the premise that people should be able to get along with that."
In the meantime, hunger is growing. In Nova Scotia, there's been a 12.1 percent increase over the last 10 years in the number of people who used a food bank in March, the month in which food banks conduct their "hunger count." The total last March was 18,417, but that figure rises to more than 40,000, if you add in people who relied on food from shelters, meal programs and drop-in centres. And why were these people hungry? Feed Nova Scotia says they simply lacked the income to cover living expenses such as food, heat and rent. Last year, nearly three-quarters of those who received emergency food were on welfare or disability support. The rest were the working poor, pensioners, the unemployed, students and the homeless. And no wonder they were hungry. The existence of Canada's food banks has allowed right-wing politicians to slash welfare rates, gut unemployment insurance, jack up university tuition fees, and resist calls for higher pensions and minimum wages while distributing billions in tax cuts to the better off.
"Does anyone really believe that a charitable organization, a not-for-profit organization like Feed Nova Scotia is really the group that should be eliminating hunger and poverty?" Dianne Swinemar asks. "No, I don't believe that for a moment. The decision to end poverty in Canada has to start at the federal level, the provincial level and the municipal level simultaneously."
As we contribute to the various food drives this Christmas, I'd say we should also ponder how to vote in the elections that are coming soon. If we really want to end hunger and poverty, we need to elect politicians willing to go on record in support of an adequate guaranteed income for all. Food banks are not enough.