Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We're building a bigger Band-Aid

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The recession has put the federal government in a giving mood -- and when the feds decide to play Santa and roll into town to deliver multimillion-dollar stimulus funding announcements, the pragmatic thing to do is say thank you and take the money.

This is likely why the recent announcement of $57 million worth of investments in local infrastructure projects was considered by many to be a good-news story. And, for the most part, it is.

The federal and provincial governments have joined forces to help fund construction of a new multi-rink hockey complex, a new Punjab cultural and seniors centre, a refurbishment of the Centennial Concert Hall, a new United Way headquarters, a new multicultural family centre for the Salvation Army, and a new community food distribution centre for Winnipeg Harvest.

Premier Gary Doer called the investment "a triple win" in the accompanying news release, adding: "We're stimulating the economy, creating jobs and building a better tomorrow for all Manitobans."

Perhaps -- except for one little niggling thing.

Did you notice that one of these projects is not like the others?

Winnipeg Harvest is an amazing, not-for-profit charitable organization. It receives no operational funds from governments and has only 14 full-time employees, relying heavily on community donations and the hard work of a veritable army of committed volunteers to do what it does, which is provide emergency food assistance without judgment to 36,000 people a month, 45 per cent of whom are children.

What differentiates Winnipeg Harvest from such agencies as the United Way or the Salvation Army is that, save for some advocacy work, it doesn't provide services aimed at transitioning people out of poverty. It's an emergency food bank -- and the fact that our governments have decided to help it build a new, expanded facility is not quite what I'd call good news. Bittersweet is the word that jumps to mind.

Food banks first began appearing in Canadian cities in the early '80s. Established to fill the gap in the social safety net, they were never meant to be permanent fixtures in our communities -- rather, they were supposed to be a temporary measure that would help alleviate people's suffering while governments got to work on long-term solutions to hunger. They were a Band-Aid.

Winnipeg Harvest says as much in its mission statement, noting that its ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for food banks entirely and put itself out of business. Instead, it's now been in operation for more than 20 years and, with a new building on the horizon, it would appear that it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

To get rid of food banks, governments would actually have to acknowledge that hunger is a problem in our country and take concrete, co-ordinated steps to deal with it -- like mandate a living wage for those fortunate enough still to have jobs nowadays, or provide a level of financial assistance to those who aren't working or who can't work such that they can live with a little dignity, or build more affordable social housing units so that people wouldn't have to choose between food and rent.

It's far easier to throw a few bucks at the local food bank and let compassionate volunteers shoulder the burden of feeding the hungry.

To be clear: I'm sure Winnipeg Harvest could use a new building and I'm happy that this organization is receiving support. And, to be fair, I also recognize that the provincial government unveiled a rather comprehensive (if somewhat vague) poverty-reduction plan not too long ago. It's about bloody time -- especially since the federal government seems perfectly content to abdicate any responsibility to provide a basic need to the citizens of this country.

My issue is with the way that financial assistance to Winnipeg Harvest was lumped in with money for a hockey rink and called economic stimulus.

Investing in food banks is not "building a better tomorrow for all Manitobans."

It's building a bigger Band-Aid.

Marlo Campbell writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2009 A10

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