Not your goat: Hunger & food waste

I was two when my mom got the call, so I don’t remember it. But it’s a story my mother told me several times throughout my life, as it was one of her hardest moments.

It was 1984 and food banks were a relatively new addition to my hometown of Calgary, and the rest of Canada. Someone in our community knew we were struggling and had passed our names along to this new organization. One afternoon, a volunteer from the food bank called our house to tell us that they had a hamper ready for us, if we wanted it. My mom hung up the phone and wept. This, for her, was the ultimate sign of her failure as a parent: we were so poor that the food bank was calling.

Flash forward a few years and we are sitting down to a dinner of soup that has been prepared from a package. The smell is stomach turning, so I have refused to eat it. My parents insist that I have to empty my bowl. I sit in my booster seat, with tears streaming down my burning cheeks as I stare defiantly at my bowl. That’s when I realize that the contents of the soup are moving. There are bugs swimming in the broth. I cry harder. The first five years of my life have been punctuated by reminders of our poverty. But this was a new low.

I share these stories for several reasons, the first being that food is inherently an emotionally charged subject. We all know what it is to feel hunger, but the thought of feeling hunger with no end in sight is scary. Somehow in a country as rich as ours, there are people in our communities that do not have food. It’s something that shouldn’t happen. And yet, food insecurity is all around us.

It is a testament to our spirit that we want to fix this problem. But food waste diversion initiatives in the sharing economy and elsewhere to connect the poor with leftover food, cannot address food insecurity. They never will. If sharing food was the solution to food insecurity, it would have been eradicated in my lifetime.

My mom and I were not living in some post-apocalyptic landscape devoid of food. We were in a major urban centre with an ample selection of food outlets. What prevented our access to healthy food was poverty. When we stopped living in poverty, we stopped being food insecure.

The Daily Bread Food Bank reports that the most common issue facing their clients is the rising cost of rent. More and more people are finding that there isn’t enough money leftover after the rent is paid to cover groceries. And rental costs will continue to rise while real income of most Canadians does not.

The vast majority of us are feeling this squeeze, particularly the millennials that these new Bunz-style food share schemes are intended to appeal to. We can’t crowdsource our way out of the growing wealth gap in Canada. Skyrocketing food bank use has a lot more to do with the fact that, housing costs in most cities in Canada have increased by more than 150 per cent over the last decade, while incomes have risen about one-fifth that much.

At best, these schemes help some of us feel better about our food waste. At worst, they are creating a false sense of security that obscures a real and looming crisis whose roots extend beyond our fridges to an economy that increasingly relies on precarious, low-wage labour.

If we really want to commit to ending hunger, it’s time to take on the unsexy work of demanding living wages and social supports.

This story was originally published in NOW Toronto.