Paying a fair wage could help reduce dependence on food banks, SACPA told

Friday, December 20, 2013

By Lethbridge Herald on December 19, 2013.

University of Lethbridge professor John Usher and Kelsey Janzen, assistant to the executive Director of the Interfaith Food Bank, spoke on the topic, Food Banks: Why are they Needed in Our Affluent Society, at the Thursday session of SACPA.

Herald photo by David Rossiter Dave Mabell

For years, lower-income Lethbridge residents have been relying on food banks. The agencies’ hampers and emergency assistance have helped countless thousands stave off starvation.
But now food bank officials are asking why they’re still here, in the wealthiest province in one of the world’s most fortunate nations. And in Lethbridge, they’re wondering why there are two large food banks — serving basically the same families and individuals.
At the same time, the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs learned Thursday, board members are linking with their counterparts across the nation to advocate for a fair “working wage” for all Canadians.
John Usher, board president for the Lethbridge Food Bank Society, reported children represent up to 45 per cent of the local residents who currently depend on one of the city’s two large agencies. A small but increasing number of senior citizens also need food assistance to get through the month.
 Kelsey Janzen, volunteer co-ordinator at the Interfaith Food Bank, pointed out 24 cent of the people on their shared client list are putting in many hours at a job that isn’t paying enough to meet the family’s needs. With the nation’s lowest minimum wage but one of its highest costs of living, getting help from a food bank becomes a necessity.
Fortunately, she said the food banks are well supported by local residents and businesses. Many people volunteer their time as well.
“When needs arise, the citizens of Lethbridge step up.”
 Recognizing the success Interfaith has experienced in launching gardening and cooking classes in its new facility, Usher told a questioner his board is wondering why — other than historical reasons — it hasn’t merged with Interfaith.
“We’re as collaborative as all get-out,” he said, including shared fundraising events.
But food bank boards are asking deeper questions, he added.
“Are they simply a means to let government off the hook?”
As right-wing governments cut back on social services, he said, ordinary citizens have had to reach into their own pockets to help their neighbours.
But businesses have lent their support as well, Janzen pointed out. About 30 per cent of the food distrubuted in Lethbridge comes from a central clearing house in Calgary, from supplies donated by major food distributors. Another 23 per cent comes from Lethbridge restaurants and grocery stores, she said.
But given a choice, Usher was asked, would food bank officials want to continue accepting that food — or ask the companies to pay their employees a sustainable, full-time wage instead?
Answers to some of those questions, he said, could come from a meeting planned in Lethbridge next month. It will deal with issues of poverty in southern Alberta, and its title illustrates the difficulties many face when they try to escape the poverty cycle.
It’s being called, “Climbing the Waterfall.”

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