I know the words almost by heart. Two good citizens visit Ebenezer Scrooge’s dark, cold, bleak office on Christmas Eve.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute,” one says. “A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. Because it is at Christmas time, that want is most keenly felt and abundance rejoices.”
Scrooge responds: “The Treadmill and the Poor Law, they’re still in full vigor l presume? l was afraid that something had happened to stop them in their useful course.”
In the mid-1800s miserable old Scrooge – before the ghosts of Christmas would pull him back from the brink of damnation – embraced a social construct that was guided by the view that the poor were largely responsible for their own misery and could change their grim reality if they chose to do so.
I was reminded last week that we have not come a very long way in the last 200 years. Poverty plagues us still. For many who stand in line at one of this country’s 4,000 food banks, it is a fact of life made grimmer by the inability of the rest of us to socially engineer even one day free of humiliating hunger for so many.
A nation-wide “Hunger Count,” just made public, has found that more than 850,000 Canadians are turning to food banks each month. Food bank use reached about 670,000 individuals in March 2008, spiked drastically in 2009 and has hovered at record levels ever since.
A most alarming finding is that an increasing number of food bank patrons are seniors.
In Ontario, there has been a “staggering” 35 per cent spike in the number of senior citizens visiting food banks. And, there is anecdotal evidence that seniors in this province are in the same predicament.
Laura Lansink, executive director of Food Banks B.C., says: “In Surrey, our food banks are reporting that seniors are their fastest growing demographic; these are people on a fixed income for life.”
The Hunger Count reveals that seven per cent of Canadian households helped by food banks live primarily on income from a pension.
The report is based in part on food bank visits in March of each year. In B.C., there were more than 100,000 individuals dependent on food banks this past March, a 28 per cent increase since 2008, and almost 3,000 more hungry people than in March 2014. Children account for 31 per cent of food bank visits. Almost 60 per cent of B.C.’s food banks reported an increase in business.
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, probably speaks to a pan-Canadian reality when she says “the face of hunger is changing.”
“We have seen a very concerning spike in the number of senior citizens accessing food banks, as well as single-person households. We believe that these demographic changes are reflective of a lack of affordable housing and insufficient social assistance and senior citizen support programs.
“Senior citizens are at a growing risk of food insecurity, alongside far too many adults and children,” says Lee. “Unless measures are implemented to assist those without proper access to safe and affordable housing, nutritious food and stable employment, this need will only continue to grow.”
The “Hunger Count” – it has an ominous ring doesn’t it? Especially at Christmas time when “want is most keenly felt and abundance rejoices.”
Brian Kieran is a veteran journalist and communications specialist.