Graham Riches, emeritus professor and former director of the UBC school of social work, argues food banks have become part of the problem rather than the stopgap they were meant to be when they sprang up 30 years ago at the height of a deepening recession. He said they have become a permanent way of dealing with poverty that lets governments, corporations, and donors, off the hook.

If Food Banks Canada, which makes recommendations of the provincial and federal government in its latest report Hunger Count 2013, really wanted to end hunger, Riches argues, it would be organizing protests in the streets, but instead it keeps quiet to avoid upsetting corporate sponsors and government.

“We need to change the conversation away from one of rights to charity to one of rights to food,” Riches said. He argued everyone should be able to go into a grocery store and buy the food they want with dignity.

Yesterday marked an annual event in the Food Banks Canada calendar – the release of their annual Hunger Count report. Pulling in data from their network of 3,000 food centres, the numbers are an example that the recession has not abated for many living in low-income, and thousands who are in need of food.

This year Food Banks Canada calculated that each month 833,098 individuals are using food banks across the country – 23% above pre-recession levels. Half of the users are families with children, 11% identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit, and another 11% are recent immigrants. A full 12% have jobs, and 5% were recently employed. What these numbers tell us is that our current system of support is failing. That a ‘job plan’ is not a poverty plan and people are finding themselves in desperate need for basic goods, such as food.

It’s been dubbed the Great Gatsby Curve.

Plot countries on a graph. Put income inequality on one axis, mobility between generations on the other.

A sobering picture emerges. The dream of achieving a better life than your parents is more elusive in countries where the gap between rich and poor is larger.

For now, Canada sits comfortably in the middle of the curve among developed countries. It’s more equal and traditionally more upwardly mobile than those at the extremes of the scale, including the United States, but it trails countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

As the Liberal government prepares to release its fall economic statement, it’s worth noting that some Ontarians are living within the ruthless trap of poverty. It’s a sad existence.

Indeed, Ontarians on social assistance are increasingly relying upon food banks to survive. A new national study on hunger by Food Banks Canada shows that reliance on free food increased by nearly 20 per cent in the five years between March 2008 and March 2013.

While the number of adults and children who visited Ontario food banks dropped slightly last year, they remain deeply worrisome. According to the study, more than 375,000 Ontarians used food banks in a 12 month-period ending last spring. Some 35 per cent are children.

833,098 Canadians used food banks in March of 2013. Half of food bank users reported social assistance as their primary source of income, a quarter were single parent families, 11 percent were First Nations, Métis or Inuit, and 11 percent were recent immigrants. These Canadians come from a broad range of backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: they are living in poverty.

Ensuring that children are able to grow up in families that have adequate resources is important. Growing up in poverty can lead to major differences in school readiness, and this affects ability to do well in school. We have previously blogged about how parents living in poverty change their babies’ diapers less frequently than parents that are well-off in order to make their supplies last longer. We have also blogged about how child care is so unaffordable in Canada that only wealthy families have choices about how to care for their children.

To focus on food charity is to ignore the root of the problem. Yes, people need access to emergency food in tough times – that is why food banks were created – but over 30 years later food banks have boomed and their numbers steadily increased. Ending hunger is not about charity, it is about justice and respect for human rights.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is reported to have said, now famously:

“I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Taxes aren’t the only way to pay for civilization, of course: community groups, charities, and churches also contribute. But I consider myself a fairly prudent consumer, and I want my money to be used well.

Even excellent charities are inefficient. Take food banks. We have a distribution system that goes from farms to warehouses to grocery stores. Food banks then set up more warehouses and pick-up sites to get sustenance out to those in need, often food that’s already gone down the first chain. It’s far more efficient to give people the means to use the retail distribution network than to create and have them use an alternate system.