CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
Freedom 90 volunteers Marsha Fox, left, Susan Pratt, Theresa Porter speak out against a segregated food system.
TORONTO – There's only one union in Ontario demanding layoffs, willing to accept a wage freeze and hoping to be declared obsolete.
The brand-new Freedom 90 Union of Food Bank and Emergency Meal Program Volunteers launched its demands at a downtown Toronto church May 7.
The Freedom 90 group of middle-aged and elderly veteran volunteers of Ontario's food banks are asking Ontario's government to "make Ontario's food banks obsolete – before we volunteers reach the age of 90."
"We have earned the right to speak out," said Susan Pratt, a volunteer with St. Matthew's House Hamilton.
Many of the volunteers Pratt works with in the HOPE/25 in 5 network in Hamilton, Ont., have been at it more than 20 years. Yet the numbers at food banks continue to grow, Pratt said.
"Successive Ontario governments have relied on volunteers to deliver essential, basic needs," said Theresa Porter, a volunteer at the Trinity United food bank in Newmarket, Ont.
Volunteer Marsha Fox of St. John Chrysostom Parish in Newmarket, Ont., slammed the provincial government's poverty-reduction efforts as too little and the recent austerity budget as cruel and unsustainable.
"The government's poverty-reduction strategy is not adequate," she said.
A budget compromise with the NDP that allowed for one-per-cent increases to the Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works translates into $10 per month more for ODSP recipients and a $6 per month increase for people on Ontario Works, she said. "That's not enough."
Ontario's food banks started as an emergency measure, said Pratt.
"It has become a permanent need in our communities," she said. "What used to be termed a food emergency has become normal."
Talking about poverty in terms of hunger masks the inadequacy of both welfare rates and wages at the low end of the work force, said Fox.
The food banks have become a kind of parallel food system in Ontario, according to Fox. Where most people are fed by grocery stores and restaurants, the poor are fed by a kind of makeshift system cobbled together from leftovers of the mainstream food system.
"A separate and segregated food system for people with low incomes is undignified and often humiliating," she said.
Nearly 400,000 people in Ontario relied on a food bank at some point in the last year, including 148,000 children, according to the Ontario Association of Food Banks.
Any food bank or meal program volunteer in Ontario can join Freedom 90 by writing to the York Region Food Network, 350 Industrial Parkway South, Aurora, Ont., L4G 3V7. Its website is www.freedom90.ca.