JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Bob McKeon

January 23, 2012

Two months ago, Food Banks Canada published Hunger Count 2011 , an annual report on hunger and food use in Canada. Our community food banks serve as an "early warning" indicator of the serious problems our society is currently facing.

The total number of individuals assisted by food banks in Alberta was 58,735, up a whopping 75 per cent from three years ago.

A significant number of our neighbours have suffered greatly in the economic downturn.

The Hunger Count 2011 report also indicates who some of these people are. Last year, 43.7 per cent of those assisted by food banks in Alberta were under the age of 18.

This percentage of children assisted by Alberta food banks is higher than in any other province in Canada. We need to ask important questions about child poverty and child hunger in our province.

Another interesting statistic relates to the primary source of income for food bank recipients.

In Alberta, over 27 per cent of those assisted by food banks list paid work, employment income, as their primary source of income. This percentage is also higher than in any other province.

WORKING POOR

Many of our neighbours work, and work hard, but still need their local food bank to put food on the table. Alberta has a "working poor" problem.

It is not irrelevant that Alberta again has the lowest minimum wage in the country.

It is highly symbolic that the legal name for the Edmonton Food Bank filed with the Corporate Registry is the Edmonton Gleaners Society. This refers to the passages about gleaning in the Bible in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

There, the second picking of the crops in the fields belongs by law (not by optional charity) to those who are at most risk of becoming poor, the widows, orphans and sojourners (immigrants and refugees).

The biblical laws about gleaning are part of God's special concern for those who are poor and at the margins. What might this mean for us today in Alberta and across Canada?

Our generous support for food banks in Alberta is an important first step for addressing hunger and poverty in our communities. It is a first step, but one that inevitably calls for further actions and commitments.

From the first days of the first food bank in Alberta over 30 years ago, food banks have been very clear that their emergency food support programs should not be seen as an adequate means of supplying ongoing food and personal support for those in need.

If food banks are the first step, local organizations such as Public Interest Alberta and the Edmonton Social Planning Council are pointing the direction for possible follow up steps.

POVERTY REDUCTION

Six weeks ago these two organizations co-published a report advocating for a comprehensive Alberta "poverty reduction" strategy titled In This Together: Ending Poverty in Alberta (www.edmontonsocialplanning.ca).

The Greater Edmonton Alliance works with people moving from being often passive recipients of government and charitable social services to reaching out to others, building bonds of solidarity and organizing together for the common good.

Too often those working for social change and those providing emergency services, such as those volunteering at food banks, are critical of each other's work and priorities.

CHARITY AND ADVOCACY

Catholic social teaching insists that both are important. This can be seen in the rule of St. Vincent de Paul Society, which calls for organized efforts for both charity and advocacy.

Pope Benedict in Caritas in Veritate calls for both charity and justice: "To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity."

He describes justice as the institutional or political path of charity.

Christmas season is a time of campaigns for financial and food donations by food banks and other charitable organizations who provide services for those who are poor. Media often highlight this work.

There is a great effort by many to ensure that no one is hungry at Christmas. These efforts capture an important dimension of the message of Jesus. However, those in need in December are likely still very much to be in need today.

As we move through January, public attention and media interest has moved on to other concerns.

However, we need to make sure our commitment stays strong throughout the year, for both charitable outreach and justice making.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)