Rising food bank use leads to call for B.C. poverty reduction strategy

A discussion about the role of food banks hosted by CBC Vancouver led to calls to address the root causes of poverty. While advocates called for a concrete poverty strategy, Minister Peter Fassbender said better jobs will do the most good.

Fassbender: no need for poverty reduction strategy because provinces with them still have poverty

Left to right: Paul Taylor of the Gordon Neighbourhood House, Doris Chow, of the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables Project and Potluck Cafe Society, Peter Fassbender, minister of community, sport and cultural development, Marilyn Hermann, executive director of the Surrey Food Bank and moderator Stephen Quinn, host of CBC Radio One's On The Coast take part in a panel on the role of food banks in B.C. Tuesday night. (David Horemans/CBC)

Is it time for B.C. to have a poverty reduction strategy?

That was the main question advocates, food bank operators and Minister Peter Fassbender kept coming back to at a discussion about the role of food banks

The Tuesday night discussion at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church in Vancouver set out to answer the question of why a province as wealthy as B.C. has over 100,000 people relying on food banks every month, how the situation got to be like this and what the role of food banks should be.

"We're spending too much time and energy in the wrong places. We're not getting to the root causes at all," said Marilyn Hermann, executive director of the Surrey Food Bank.

"We have a deeply inadequate welfare rate … We all know how much housing and food and all the other costs have skyrocketed."

Hermann says her staff poll food bank clients periodically about what keeps them coming back to use the food bank.

The overwhelming response, she says, is poverty, followed by not earning enough money and third is the cost or scarcity of childcare.

She called on the B.C. government to develop a poverty reduction strategy for the only province lacking one.

"We just need to start the process," she said, calling for increases to welfare and disability rates and the minimum wage.

Minister says more needs to be done

Peter Fassbender, minister of community, sport and cultural development, found himself on the defensive for much of the night, forced to explain why poverty reduction has been a priority for his government.

Marilyn Hermann, executive director of the Surrey Food Bank (left) and Peter Fassbender, minister of community, sport and cultural development participate in Tuesday night's forum. (David Horemans/CBC)

He reminded panelists of his government's investments in social housing, an increase to disability benefits and job creation programs. He also agreed more needed to be done, but there will always be poverty in the province.

Fassbender used the word "complex" frequently when explaining why food bank use in B.C. is rising.

He says part of the reason is family structures breaking down, specifying divorce and senior isolation. He also said mental health challenges and rising costs for essentials are also part of it.

"I don't think maintaining a welfare system is the ultimate answer," he said. "We have to make choices that we believe will keep our economy going.… Our strategy is to take concrete action to provide the tools so people can live happy and fulfilling lives."

"I don't believe money is the only answer … We have to make choices that we believe will keep our economy going."

Fassbender said he didn't see the need for a poverty reduction strategy in B.C. because there are provinces with them that still have poverty.

He later walked back that comment, saying the government does have a strategy to reduce poverty, which is their jobs plan.

Time to end food banks?

Trish Garner of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, disagreed poverty is such a complex issue.

"It's not rocket science: you give people more income, you reduce food insecurity," she said.

"I disagree with the minister … that poverty is inevitable. Poverty is not inevitable. Poverty comes down to political choices. We can choose to tackle this at its root causes."

One choice she wants to see is the government choosing a poverty reduction strategy. She says provinces with them have seen successes, including Quebec's daycare program which she says is self-sustaining.

Paul Taylor of Gordon Neighbourhood House (left) and Trish Garner of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition called for more government action on poverty, including a poverty reduction strategy. (David Horemans/CBC)

Paul Taylor of the Gordon Neighbourhood House agreed that governments can make a difference when it comes to poverty.

He called B.C.'s low minimum wage as "legislating poverty" and wants it raised to $15 per hour.

He also says it's time to stop "enshrining" food banks and charity as a solution to food insecurity.

"We need to be having a much more thoughtful conversation not about ad hoc policies, but how we can put policies together around a poverty reduction strategy that actually works to lift people out of poverty," he said.

Artist Tiaré Jung captures the thoughts and comments of the panelists and audience 0:29

To hear the full panel discussion, click on the audio labelled: CBC Vancouver's complete food bank forum