Lose Your Job, Go to the Food Bank?

This past Saturday found me driving along Route 4 listening to commercial radio. (I know what you’re thinking: did last Saturday also find you breathing and blinking at regular intervals? Did it find you wearing shoes? But you have to understand, I haven’t owned a car or listened to commercial radio in years. It’s been public transit and public broadcasting all the way.)

The thing about not owning a car or listening to commercial radio is that you tend to get a bit smug about yourself. It’s your reward for putting up with the inconvenience of public transit (“Damn, I just missed the bus. Guess I’ll spend another hour at the mall…”) and the many annoyances of public broadcasting (“Do we really have to talk about female genital mutilation at 8:30 a.m.? Couldn’t I finish my coffee first?”) Therefore, I think it’s important that I make a full confession about how much fun it is to drive along listening to classic rock.

But as it was the Thanksgiving weekend, the commercial station in question was also holding a fundraiser — or more accurately, a food raiser — for Sydney’s Loaves and Fishes Food Bank, so between choruses of “Sweet Child O’Mine” and “Magic Man” I heard the DJ making the case for donating food to the less fortunate. One of his lines lodged in my head so firmly it’s still there, days later. Explaining how people who never dreamed they’d need to use a food bank end up at one, he said:

You lose your job and suddenly, you can’t feed your kids.

 

Is that really the society we live in? I thought Canada was a more progressive place, where we recognized that people (and their children) have a right to food, even if our downsized, outsourced, part-time, contract-based, automated labor market has no current use for them. And by a right to food I don’t mean a right to visit a food bank.

Have we really removed government entirely from this equation? Is charity the only solution? The DJ seemed to think so — he made no mention of Employment Insurance (EI) or Social Assistance or the social safety net. In his account of things, people go straight from losing their jobs to Loaves and Fishes.

And he’s not entirely wrong — people working two and three part-time or contract jobs may not be paying into EI and won’t qualify to collect it when and if they lose one or two or three of those jobs. And Social Assistance in Nova Scotia barely allows recipients to pay rent, let alone buy food — not to mention how expensive it is to apply for, as was documented recently by The Nova Scotia Advocate.

The DJ said he personally “thanks God” that he and his wife have good jobs, suggesting one’s state of employment has nothing to do with one’s qualifications or the vagaries of the labor market and everything to do with God’s will. (Raising theological questions beyond the scope of this article like, “Why would God ensure Cape Breton has an adequate supply of commercial radio DJs while stiffing us on doctors?”)

 

I don’t mean to pick on the DJ and I’m certainly not picking on Loaves and Fishes — food banks perform a vital service in our society, but the people running them are the first to acknowledge there’s something wrong with this picture.

Listen to Shawn Pegg, director of policy and research for Food Banks Canada. In 2016, the organization released a report  showing that food bank usage was up, generally,  in Canada and up 20.9% year-on-year in Nova Scotia. At the time, Pegg told CTV news:

Governments are failing to provide adequate supports to people who have fallen on hard times. It shows we need to break from the past in our approach to solving the problems of poverty, food and security and hunger.

The report itself argues that social assistance is “based in a culture of suspicion and distrust rather than one of support and mutual aid” and “traps Canadians in poverty rather than helping them to escape it.”

It’s a harder concept to sell in a commercial radio format — instead of encouraging people to grab a few cans and boxes from their kitchen cupboards and donate them to the food bank (with the intent of providing people with food for one weekend in October) you’d have to encourage them to think about the social contract and income inequality and redistribution of wealth and social justice — and then somehow segue from there into “Tom Sawyer” or “Brandy.”

But I’d take awkward segues (“You know who doesn’t have to visit food banks? Bob Seeger. Why? Because he has been richly rewarded for his contributions to society, including this eponymous track from his 1980 album, Against the Wind…) over matter-of-fact statements like, “You lose your job and suddenly, you can’t feed your kids” any day.

 

 

 

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