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In the media 12/01/2016

This speech was delivered by Nick Saul at TEDxToronto 2016 on October 27, 2016. To watched the full video, click here or scroll down!

For the last 40 years, we’ve been sold a lie about how to solve hunger. It’s the kind of deception that sounds so right, so convincing, that we don’t even ask questions.

We’ve been told and far too many of us believe that handing out food to poor, struggling people will fill their need and end their hunger.

Now, it’s true that in an emergency like the fires that ravaged Fort McMurray or during war or the myriad of natural disasters that rock our world with regularity, handing out food is the right thing to do. Desperate people in desperate circumstances — a crisis — need food right away.

And, indeed, the hunger that I’ve seen in my front line work with low income communities over the last 20 years, is a crisis. Four million of our fellow citizens don’t know where their next meal will come from. In the U.S., one in seven people don’t get enough to eat on a daily basis. But let’s be clear this is a crisis of a different — longstanding — order. And we’ve been throwing food at it for a very long time.

We create new food banks and expand the ones we already have. And while these front-line programs are doing their best, resources are minimal, spaces are too often dreary and inadequate and they rely heavily on highly processed corporate leftovers.

Meanwhile our politicians campaign on giving tax credits to these companies. We establish walk-a-thons to raise food and “check-out” hunger at the grocery store. We’ve created an entire ecosystem of food charity. And it’s so pervasive it makes us feel like we’ve done our part. It makes us think the problem is solved.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. The number of people unable to put food on their table continues to grow. Food bank users are some the unhealthiest people in the country, battling high rates of diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. All that work and the problem just gets worse.

So, if food handouts aren’t the answer, what is? And how do we counter this widespread misunderstanding about how to create change when it comes to hunger? I believe we start by interrogating the premise.

Many years ago, Jan Poppiendieck, one of my food movement heroes, said to me that how we frame a problem always determines the kind of solution we get. So, if we say hunger is due to a lack of food, the obvious answer is: Get those people something to eat.

But if we ask what is really at the root of hunger we discover that the answer is more complex and far less easy to respond to. That’s because the root of hunger is poverty. The root of hunger is in the 23% drop in income for the lowest earning Canadians over the last 40 years. It is in the US federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. In other words, people can’t afford to both eat and live with health and dignity. Anyone can see we’re not going to solve such persistent problems with donations of canned peas and corn — no matter how well meaning. The solution lies elsewhere.

I have a friend named Glenn who’s here in the audience today. Glenn is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He grew up in a family that didn’t believe in education and he quit school in Grade 9. By then he was already an alcoholic. He hit rock bottom at 23. He was so sick he nearly died. But Glenn was one of the lucky ones. He managed to kick drinking and get his life back on track. He worked hard — on a fishing trawler in Holland, as a groom at a racetrack, in maintenance at a university. Eventually he landed out west and created a successful landscaping business with several part time employees. He had a longtime girlfriend, a nice house, a bunch of vehicles. Things were great. Until they weren’t. The army base that was critical to his income closed and his business never recovered. His relationship fell apart and he lost everything. Glenn came back to Toronto and found the only place he could afford was in a bedbug-infested rooming house. He was hungry and depressed. His sense of self-worth was battered.

Glenn turned up at the Community Food Centre where I worked at the time. He kept his eyes on the floor when he picked up some food to take home. When someone offered him a chance to stay for a meal he said no thanks. He was embarrassed. He felt small.

But poor health made it difficult to work and Glenn kept having to come back. Eventually when he was asked to join the community meal, he sat down. The space was bright, flags from every country in the world hung from the ceiling. Dinner was served to the tables by volunteers on nice plates with real cutlery. Not only that, the food was delicious. Healthy. Some of it grown in our community garden. He returned often. He got to know people and started to volunteer himself. He felt respected, treated with dignity. He wasn’t just a number but part of a team and that changed everything.

I’ve seen this over and over in the Community Food Centres that we’re building across the country. People come for the food, but real change happens in their lives because of the connections they forge — growing food in the gardens, cooking in our community kitchens, sharing a meal together in our dining rooms, volunteering in our after school programs. The people who come to our doors are hungry but, even more, they are lonely, disenfranchised, silenced. They are often without hope.

Hope sounds like a soft thing. An intangible. It’s something you can’t measure or put on a spreadsheet. Yet such soft things — hope and its sisters dignity, self-worth and connection — lie at the heart of creating both individual and societal change.

Over time, Glenn got more and more involved at the centre, joining the civic engagement side of our work — learning how to talk to the media and politicians about lived experience, how to organize community meetings and advocate effectively.

It was a powerful learning process. Revelatory for Glenn and others to share stories with people in similar circumstances and to acknowledge that their poverty and hunger wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t a matter of personal choice or poor budgeting. Recognizing their experience as part of a system of inequality, a system that’s not working in their favour, made them see themselves differently. Together, they began to imagine they could change not just their own lives but the lives of other people in their community.

And that’s exactly what they did. I remember one day Glenn and the civic engagement crew gathered with drums and signs and a megaphone to march together to the office of our local politician. They felt he needed to hear how impossible it was for them to make ends meet before they went on to a larger demonstration at the legislature.

When the crowd reached his office they chanted and sang before handing Glenn the megaphone. Glenn hesitated for a second, then seemed to grow taller, more certain of himself. He raised the megaphone to his lips and spoke forcefully. “I was hungry yesterday and I am hungry today. And the way this government treats us I’m going to be hungry tomorrow!”

It was a brilliant, moving moment of clarity. There on the street everyone understood the truth about ending hunger. It was clear that a single meal or a hundred single meals will never solve the hunger crisis. What’s needed is not charity, but solidarity.

We must cultivate the sense of community and belonging that I’ve been talking about — but not stop there. We need to take the essential next step, translating our collective wealth into such things as affordable child care, subsidized housing and maybe one day a basic income guarantee. These are the kind of public policies that have been shown to diminish poverty and inequality. These are the supports that emerge from a society that understands itself as connected.

And it’s not just low-income people and anti-poverty activists, but all of us who have a role to play in creating a more inclusive, and fair society. It starts by getting involved in a practical way in your community: if you have a kid, join your school council; if you want to live in a welcoming, diverse neighbourhood, get involved in your neighbourhood association; volunteer with a front-line organization that is doing work that you care about.

And just as Glenn did, find a way to link these local efforts with larger systemic change. Turn that school experience into pushing for equitable funding for all schools. Champion the creation of affordable housing in your own backyard. Don’t be a bystander.

It’s only by operating in this more public sphere, rolling up our collective sleeves and getting involved, that we’ll be able build a more just country and make hunger history.

I had tea with Glenn a few weeks ago. Not long after that day in front of the politician’s office he got a full time job with good benefits. He started taking photography courses, pursuing his passion for art. He’s retired now and unfortunately struggling with some serious health problems. But Glenn’s got a safe, clean apartment. His Volunteer of the Year award from his years at the Community Food Centre is displayed proudly on his wall. He continues to be engaged in his neighbourhood. He’s created a community of caring around himself. It’s just the kind of person he is.

Actually I believe it’s the kind of people we all are given the opportunity.

We can’t afford to forget that we are all connected for it’s this sense of community that is at the core of forging a society where we can all thrive and where we can all have a dignified seat at the table.

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