National Food Strategy

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate. It is about hunger in this country.

Hunger in Canada is not something we often think about. We think of hunger at times in terms of famine in far-off lands like those of West Africa, where 23 million people, primarily in Mali and Niger, recently faced a food crisis. However, there is a sobering reality and that is that close to 900,000 Canadians are assisted by food banks each month.

Honourable senators and the leader may recall that the government shrugged off the conclusions reached by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, who conducted an official investigation into food security in Canada last May. To remind honourable senators, he found that Canada is ignoring hunger within its own borders and that 800,000 households lack the wherewithal to ensure there is proper food on the table each and every day. There were a number of recommendations in his report, such as increased affordable housing, increased social investment in the North, ensuring adequate pensions for the most vulnerable seniors, investing in supportive quality social assistance programs, and acting to address the decline in well-paying jobs.

How is the government responding to these recommendations? What specifically is being done to combat hunger in Canada?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): First, honourable senators, the UN Rapporteur who came to the country did not — as I think any reasonable person would know — reflect the reality in Canada.

Obviously, the situation with some people in the country is not a good one. The use of food banks is something that is of great concern. However, as I have outlined many times, honourable senators, the many programs the government has undertaken on the child poverty issue through programs to assist families. Even though Canada’s record is one of the best in the world, there are still some people who fall below the line that is acceptable and the government will continue to work with the provinces in that regard.

Of course, as honourable senators know, massive sums of money are transferred to the provinces and the territories with regard to a lot of the social assistance that is required to help these families. It is not correct to say that any government, most particularly this government, is not doing everything possible to alleviate this problem.

Senator Munson: Honourable senators, here is the reality in Canada. These figures come from Hunger Count 2012: 93,000 people each month access a food bank for the first time; 11 per cent of people assisted are Aboriginal; 52 per cent of households helped receive social assistance; 18 per cent of income is from current or recent employment; 14 per cent receive disability-related income supports; 14 per cent of food banks ran out of food during the survey period; and 55 per cent of food banks needed to cut back on the amount of food provided to each household.

Last Friday, we held a National Child Day event here with Senator Martin and Senator Mercer, and we had a spokesperson from the food bank. Here is another reality check, honourable senators: once again, 900,000 Canadians are using food banks on a monthly basis, of which 38 per cent are children and youth. In a country as wealthy as Canada, this is unacceptable. Would the leader not agree that this is unacceptable?

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, I personally participate in my own community by donating money to food banks. They provide a great service to those in need in various communities.

However, the government works extremely hard with our provincial and territorial counterparts for programs we have put in place to address the issue of child poverty. Of course, as I have said — and I hope the honourable senator agrees — the best way to alleviate poverty or child poverty is to provide good-paying jobs for the parents of these children.

As a result of the actions of this government, over 820,000 jobs have been created since July 2009.

We introduced the Working Income Tax Benefit, and it helped 1.5 million Canadians in 2011.

We invested significant funds in training to get Canadians back to work in 2009-10 helping over 1.2 million people.

We increased the amount families and the two lowest personal income tax brackets can earn before paying taxes. A typical family now has $3,000 more in its pockets. Over 1 million low-income Canadians do not pay income taxes at all anymore.

We enhanced the National Child Benefit and the Canada Child Tax Benefit; we brought in the Universal Child Care Benefit, $100 per month for children under the age of 6, helping 2 million children. Budget 2010 allowed single-parent families to keep more of this benefit after tax. The child tax credit is available for every child under the age of 18, which provides more money to over 3 million children and removes 180,000 low-income Canadians from paying income tax.

We obviously continue to work with our provincial counterparts and assist the social and private sectors, which are in the best position to tackle local challenges such as homelessness, unemployment and poverty. All of us individually do our part in this regard and so does the government.

Senator Munson: The leader has her statistics, and I have mine. These are real people. These are children. These are 900,000 Canadians. The leader can recite her statistics, and perhaps her government is doing some good work in some fields. I will acknowledge that, but let us take a look at these statistics. It is still a reality check.

People are going hungry in this country; children are going hungry in this country. A recent report from Toronto’s medical officer of health stated:

Children who live in food-insecure households are more likely to have growth and developmental problems, be susceptible to illness and perform poorly in school, compared to children who are food-secure.

Adequate nutrition is also key to youth mental health. Psychiatrists even advise that the first two mental health questions asked of youth ought to be “How did you sleep last night? Have you eaten today?”

Honourable senators, I do not have a question at the end of this supplementary, but the leader has heard these two questions, and, as my colleague would say, they speak for themselves.

Senator LeBreton: The statistics that I stated regarding the over 820,000 jobs that were created are about real people, too. The government’s various programs and various measures make it easier for low-income Canadians to keep their hard-earned money, if they have the ability to earn their own income. We also have employment insurance programs and programs to help families with disabled children. However, when I cite these statistics and the honourable senator says he was talking about real people, I am talking about real people, too. These are real people who have benefited from the programs of the government.

Obviously, there is always more to be done. Not only the government but also the various agencies and the various levels of government work extremely hard, as we see in our own community here, to ensure that no one goes hungry.