The federal and provincial governments need to do more to address the reasons why people have to go to food banks, say the heads of two B.C. food banks.

"Poverty is about making tough choices: do I pay my rent or do I put food on the table?" said Marilyn Hermann, the executive director of the Surrey Food Bank told B.C. Almanac host Gloria Macarenko.

Hermann said that many of the Surrey Food Bank's clients are people are families with young children, and single-parent families, often single mothers.

Affordable housing, daycare needed

"We asked our clients at the food bank, what needs to change in your life so that you do not need us any longer? What we heard from them was, 'I need affordable housing. Seventy per cent of my income is going to my rent, I need more money,'" she said.

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Marilyn Herrmann is the executive director of the Surrey Food Bank. (Gavin Fisher/CBC)

"These people are trying to live on money that is just not enough, and they need affordable daycare."

Statistics Canada released a report earlier this year that showed more than one million Canadians households experienced food insecurity in 2012, meaning that they did not have access to a sufficient variety or quantity of food due to lack of money.

A group of researchers named PROOF calculated that number was instead as high as four million.

Peter Sinclair, the executive director of the Nanaimo Loaves and Fishes, agreed that governments must do more, but said the food bank plays a role in that as well, and should support other community agencies that are trying to "address the core reasons that bring people to the food bank in the first place."

"First and foremost support from the government for people living in poverty needs to be increased, whether it be for welfare or disability. That is unacceptably low," he said.

Food banks should advocate more, critic says

Graham Riches, professor emeritus and former director of the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, has been researching food banks since they first appeared in Canada in the 1980s.

He says food banks have to feed people, but they also "mask the underlying problems."

"We've adopted this whole-scale food charity movement and it's really enabled our governments to look the other way and not address many basic sort of questions about the adequacy of income, about living wage, about adequate social security," he told B.C. Almanac

"We need the voices of the people in the food banks, and the people donating to the food banks, asking our provincial government, and asking the federal government, saying, 'We're doing our bit, but what are you doing?'"

"We never hear the food banks actually taking on the government over the issues of welfare rates and welfare assistance, which haven't been raised since 2007."

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The Hunger Count 2015 report recently released by Food Banks Canada shows food bank use is on the rise across the country ((Elaine Thompson/Associated Press))

The Surrey Food Bank, Henman says she sits on many committees in the community of Surrey, entreating all level of government, but there are immediate needs that have to be addressed.

"If we're not there, who is going to look after our little kids and our seniors? That's the bottom line."

'The issue is about income'

Riches says he also has concerns about CBC's Food Bank Day because it is a public institution supporting food banks, when he believes the focus should be on government policy to ensure people are food secure.

"The underlying policy question is: Why in Canada are we going down this route of using surplus food and wasted food to actually feed hungry people? Is this ethically the appropriate thing to be doing when really … the issue is about income," he said.

"People actually want income in their pockets so they can go into a store like anybody else, exercise their human right, exercise their dignity, exercise their choice ,and purchase food in normal and customary ways."

"This to me this is a significant policy decision that actually needs to be taken up and people need to be angry, upset, and advocate around that kind of question."

When Jean-Yves Duclos, the minister of Families, Children and Social Development, took office, he was told by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make relieving poverty on a national scale a top priority.

"Canadian families need support and the government is working to implement a new plan that is simple, equitable, and makes a positive difference in their lives," said Duclos in a statement released on Nov. 19, National Child Day.

"Additionally, we will be making significant investments in social infrastructure — things like affordable housing and accessible child care— that will help all Canadians, especially children, develop to their full potential."


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: Food banks in B.C. say government must do more to address root causes of poverty