Ensuring that children thrive is the ultimate motherhood issue, so unsurprisingly there is overwhelming public support for it.
But that support has never been translated into action in Canada. Sixteen years after the deadline set unanimously by parliamentarians to eliminate child poverty, Canada is 21st among the world’s 29 developed countries. UNICEF also ranks Canada 26th when it comes to inequity because that poverty is concentrated among indigenous, immigrant and visible-minority kids.
As the economy has slowed, things have been getting worse. Food bank usage rose more than 17 per cent in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, according to Food Bank Canada’s recently released Hunger Count 2016.
In B.C., the year-over-year increase was 3.4 per cent. But buried in that number is the fact that food bank usage in Surrey jumped 17 per cent. The Hunger Count report says that partly due to the resettlement of 1,700 Syrian refugees into Canada’s most expensive housing market.
What’s startling is that now across Canada, the number of food bank users is 28 per cent higher than it was during the 2008 recession.
It means that 863,492 Canadians — roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Edmonton, Canada’s fifth most populous city — now don’t have enough money to buy food for themselves or their families.
In B.C., the entire population of Nanaimo is outnumbered by the province’s 103,464 food bank users.
Across Canada, babies, kids and teens comprise a third of those reliant on food banks for basic sustenance. Beyond simple hunger, this poses a more complicated and more disturbing long-term problem.
Children have nutritional needs that are not only different from those of adults, but are age specific.
It’s why for a number of years now the Greater Vancouver Food Bank has been making up special food baskets for babies, toddlers as well as for pre-schoolers.
But even with food banks, kids show up hungry at school, whether they are in kindergarten or in their graduating year of high school.
This is not good enough.
Parents shouldn’t have to line up for food. Even people on welfare shouldn’t have to make choices about whether to eat themselves or give what little food they have to their children. And children simply should not be going to school hungry.
Other countries — most notably the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden — have figured out how to support children, whether it’s their material well-being, their health, housing or education.
Netherlands is ranked first by UNICEF and is lauded by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which says it has “very good housing conditions,” above-average earnings, only 0.6 per cent of children live in households with at least one long-term unemployed parent, and only 0.4 per cent of employees regularly work long hours.
Simply put, it’s a better place than where Canada’s kids are living.
This is an election year in British Columbia. Children and their welfare ought to be on the agenda.
But in the meantime, children shouldn’t be left to suffer from hunger pangs. They shouldn’t go to school without proper clothing, nor should they be forced to stay home because they don’t have boots, hats and gloves for cold days.
For vulnerable kids, schools are their refuge. School is safe. It’s where they can bury themselves in books and forget their troubles.
And, it’s where so many teachers, other parents and other kids share food with them to make up for what they don’t get at home.
But they can’t do it alone.
Five years ago, in response to the overwhelming need to feed and clothe kids in our own neighbourhoods, the Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund was retooled from raising money for kids’ camps and swimming lessons. Through its Adopt-A-School program, close to $3 million has been raised and given out to fill the gaps and help take some of the load off school communities and teachers.
It’s been heart-warming that so many Sun readers have responded and will continue to respond to these urgent needs.
But this year, the needs are greater than last year and the year before. More help is needed for breakfast programs, snacks, backpacks filled with food for weekends, clothes, as well as aids for special-needs kids.
There is a place for charity in our society. But responsibility of ensuring the well being of children goes far beyond the ability of any non-profits like the Children’s Fund to meet. That’s up to governments because some day soon, I’d like to believe that the Children’s Fund will be able revert to raising money to enrich kids’ lives, not simply sustain them.
By Daphne Bramham (firstname.lastname@example.org)