The food banks of Canada have earned the right to lecture governments and the public about our economic system and our social safety net. They have earned that right by rolling up their sleeves to do the hard work of meeting the neediest families, hearing their stories and finding safe, nutritious food for them in the nooks and crannies of our advanced, industrial economy.
This does not make them all-knowing or all-wise. When they venture into large explanations of economic history and sweeping prescriptions for reform, they are just people with opinions, like any other Canadian. But they do know some things Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not know.
Though he could not care less what his critics say, as he told his party conference last weekend in Calgary in another context, he should take the time to read and digest the annual Hunger Count issued this week by Food Banks Canada.
Food banks, operated primarily by volunteers, gather surplus food from retailers, food processors and other donors. They offer that food free of charge to families who show they need it. Their national organization compiles statistics on their work, showing how things are going at the low end of Canada's economic totem pole.
Food banks served 833,098 people in March this year compared with 872,379 the year before -- a decline of 4.5 per cent. The number served by food banks had been much lower -- 675,735 -- in March, 2008. Statistics Canada had found an unemployment rate of 7.2 per cent in March this year, just the same as the year before. Employment in Canada has been slowly and fitfully rising from the low point of 16.7 million in July 2009 to reach 17.6 million in March this year. Food-bank users in Manitoba doubled in five years and then declined by five per cent from last year to this. Of the 60,229 people eating from Manitoba food banks in March, 45 per cent were children.
Mr. Harper reminded his party conference he had reduced the Goods and Services Tax and reached the outline of a free-trade treaty with the European Union. These were good things to do. And yet, 833,098 Canadians are still eating from the food banks. All the stupendous effort Mr. Harper has put forth in seven-and-a-half years as prime minister has only shaved 4.5 per cent off the queues at the food banks.
When the market system works well, some of the wealth generated by expansion trickles down to those who live on the fringes of the economy. An optimistic slogan teaches a rising tide raises all the boats. But the experience of Canada's food banks suggests the trickle-down is nowhere near enough to offer genuine hope to most of the people signing up for food banks. The tide has been rising slowly, but a great many boats -- 833,098 by last count -- have yet to feel the benefit.
This has been the experience of many societies in many periods of history: Economic cycles come and go, aided or impaired by government policy, but a certain number of people are always left out. The duty of government is not only to keep the taxes down and aid industry, as Mr. Harper has done, but also to assure sufficient opportunity and hope to those who are chronically left out -- the people for whom the food banks speak.
The food-bank report advocates an ambitious agenda of federal spending on affordable housing, employment training, Arctic food services and welfare reform. Mr. Harper is likely to find those plans unattractive, but he should recognize the reality from which they arise, and if he does not like those solutions he should offer better ones. The reality is the market economy does not serve everyone and probably never will.
The people on the fringes of the market economy are Canadians, too. They are our neighbours and Canada owes them a duty of support. Food banks are part of the solution, but our neighbours also need hope and opportunity. The food-bank numbers suggest they need more than is now offered.