The special rapporteur on the right to food's visit marks the first time the UN has dispatched an official to investigate food insecurity in a developed country
If everyone using a food bank in Manitoba lived in one place, it would be the province’s second-largest city. There are approximately 56,000 Manitobans who lack access to food because they either can’t afford it, or have nowhere to produce any themselves — or both.
They are the Manitobans that Winnipeg Harvest has been trying to help for over the past 20 years — yet, hunger in Manitoba still exists, said Jody Hecht, president of the Winnipeg Harvest volunteer board of directors.
Canada has yet to find ways of addressing the reasons these people are without food, she said. “In a country where there is universal access to health care, why is there not universal access to food?”
Those kinds of remarks are what United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter heard this month on an 11-day visit to Canada which included an afternoon spent at the Winnipeg food bank headquarters. He also visited several Manitoba First Nations communities.
Hundreds gathered May 13 in the “potato room” of the Winnipeg Harvest facilities, where donated vegetables from Manitoba farmers are sorted for redistribution to hungry families across Manitoba.
They were there to describe the spectre of hunger as it is both witnessed and experienced around the province.
“I really do think we live in a food apartheid in Winnipeg,” said Rebecca Blaikie, who was one of dozens who spoke on behalf of agencies they work for, or from personal experience.
An outreach worker with Community Education Development Association in Winnipeg, Blaikie sees inner-city schoolchildren arrive hungry at school every day, and how their ability to learn is compromised as a result.
“If you cross the bridge (to Winnipeg’s south end) it’s a whole other scene,” she said. “I just think most people don’t know how different it is, or about this lack of accessibility to healthy food in Winnipeg’s north end.”
De Schutter’s visit marks the first time the UN has dispatched an envoy to a developed country to investigate food insecurity.
This “mission in a rich country,” he told the Winnipeg crowd, was being undertaken because of the country’s duel problems of lack of access to food by Canada’s poorest families and the growing number of Canadians now ill because of the kind of diets they consume.
“Canada has long been seen as a land of plenty,” he said in a news release on the last day of his visit. “Yet today one in 10 families with a child under six is unable to meet their daily food needs.”
Many Canadians may not, however, see nor even understand this issue of “structural hunger,” he said while in Winnipeg.
“Yet, structural hunger is something that can be avoided. It is a matter of political will, requires political accountability and it’s not just a technical question but a question of social justice, of redistributive social policies. A rich country such as Canada needs to do more.”
At his Ottawa press conference, De Schutter spoke of his visit revealing a state of barriers to food in Canada.
“What I’ve seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers to the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor, and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples,” he said.
“Canada is much admired for its achievement in the area of human rights, which it has championed for many years. But hunger and access to adequate diets, too, are human rights issues — and here much remains to be done.”
In his report, the special rapporteur cites the country’s export-led policies in agriculture as part of the problem and calls for new types of agri-food systems that make food more widely accessible.
“A thriving small-scale farming sector is essential to local food systems,” he said.
However, no singular approach will deal with lack of food access, he stressed, adding that poverty and the fact many Canadians are too poor to afford good food is also part of the problem.
“It is not one food crisis we are confronted with, as if the question of hunger in this country was one of inadequate production,” he said.
In his report tabled May 16 De Schutter said Canada is in need of “a national right to food strategy.” National strategies improve co-ordination between relevant government ministers, monitor and identify threats to the right to adequate food, and allow governments to do long-term planning on food issues.
He also made note of the initiatives across the “by various sets of stakeholders” to develop such a strategy.
Food Secure Canada’s Resetting The Table a proposal for food policy in Canada released last year is one of them. Food Secure Canada executive director Diana Bronson called the UN envoy’s visit “a landmark event” and said she hoped this will spur development of such a strategy.
“We need a national food strategy that looks at health, economics and the environmental impacts,” she said, adding that many grassroots initiatives and policy tools are poised to advance such an approach.
De Schutter met with a large number of diverse groups while in Canada including Aboriginal municipal and provincial authorities. While in Manitoba, he met with ministers of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs, Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, Family Services, Healthy Living, Seniors and Consumer Affairs.
He also met with federal political NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Bob Rae, interim leader of the Liberal party and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who, media reports said, only agreed to meet with him “at the last minute.”
Other media reported that the federal Conservatives were not impressed by the UN envoy’s visit, billing it as a “a waste of UN money.”
Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kennedy was quoted in the Globe and Mail describing the visit as “completely ridiculous,” and a waste of UN resources.
“Canada is one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world. We believe that the UN should focus on development… in countries where people are starving,” he said.
De Schutter will present his final report to a forthcoming session of the Human Rights Council in 2013.