Volunteers at food banks and meal programs earn their angel wings. They beat the bushes for funds, do a loaves-and-fishes routine with scarce resources, and keep hunger at bay for thousands.

And they get tired. Not of the work but of the grinding poverty that keeps so many showing up month after month and constantly sends new people through their doors. So volunteers in Ontario have formed a union. They call it the Freedom 90 Union “because we want to retire from volunteering at food banks or emergency meal programs—before we are 90 years old!”

They have three demands for the Government of Ontario …

It’s time for food banks to pump up the volume and start challenging the community to do something more significant than donating a few tins of canned fish whenever the shelves are bare. They should be joining with those voices who want to build a more inclusive community, one that will give all citizens access to affordable housing, nutritious food and appropriate medical care.

Building bigger, more efficient food banks may temporarily feed more hungry people, but they won’t end hunger and they won’t prevent the users of this system from feeling like second-class citizens in a first-class world.

If you live on welfare or disability benefits, you understand what it’s like to do without. If you live in a shelter, you know what it’s like to have no home. If you feed your kids from a food bank, you know the dull ache of hunger.

Marc Hamel is a money manager. What does he know? As it happens, he floored me with knowledge.

Hamel noted that those who live in poverty are sicker more often, and sicker longer, than people who are not poor, and that puts a burden on the health-care system. Here’s a direct quote:

“Someone living in the lowest quintile of income earners will use the health-care system 50 per cent more than the average person. This is as a result of higher stress, poor nutrition, substandard housing and an unstable social environment.”

He said that the cost to the health-care system is somewhere around $3 billon a year.

As the city endured one final blast of winter, 75 residents of Sudbury braved the weather on Friday to express their opposition to austerity measures expected in the forthcoming provincial budget. The demonstrators gathered in Memorial Park for a meal and a rally, and later 40 or 50 of them then took to the streets to voice their demands outside the provincial building and at the office of Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci.

Clarissa Lassaline of the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (SCAP) said that her group is “really fearful” about the impact that budget measures might have on the poorest people in the city — “people living in poverty, people making minimum wage, who are not able with the income they have to feed themselves, to clothe themselves, to find proper housing.”

Canada desperately needs a national food strategy.

Our food system is broken.

Farmers are now making less money off their farms than they did during the Great Depression. Our national food guide tells us to load up on fruit and vegetables, but we don’t grow them any more — 80 per cent of produce is imported. Just four companies control more than 70 per cent of food sales in the country! Around 2.5 million Canadians are constantly hungry, and a quarter of us are obese. Canada is the only G8 country without a nationally funded school meal plan ….

These are big problems. So I’m glad the Conference Board of Canada is hosting its second Food Summit at the Metro Convention Centre this Tuesday and Wednesday to hammer out a national food strategy.

But I have concerns. The tickets are around $1,000 a person. And most of the speakers represent Big Industry: Nestle, Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods.

Shouldn’t a national food strategy include all voices, including the majority who can’t afford a $1,000 ticket to the table?

I was in Newmarket the other day for a nifty little public policy event …

I was there to witness an Internet hook-up between Olivier De Schutter in Geneva, and a bunch of anti-poverty workers and volunteers gathered not just in Newmarket but in various cities across the country.

DeSchutter? He is a lawyer and a rights worker for the United Nations; his area of specialty is the right to food.

I won’t quote him directly because he speaks like a UN bureaucrat, mildly and with an emphasis on process, but he worries that our food policy is focused on export. He’s right. He says our Mexican and Caribbean temporary workers have lousy health care and lousy wages. He’s right. He said that roughly a tenth of Canadians are poor. He’s right. He said we are failing these people.

He’s painfully right.

We have widespread and growing hunger in Canada, and we have tackled it with invention and charity, but it seems to me we have been doing this so long that we have forgotten to ask why some people are starving. And it’s embarrassing to be told by an outsider that we are failing. We need to talk?

He’s not right about that.

We need to act.

Picture a vast warehouse the size of a football field. Forklifts stand loaded with wooden pallets and cardboard boxes tightly secured with heavy-duty plastic wrap. In aisle upon aisle, boxes sit on metal shelves that reach all the way to the ceiling. It might be an ikea store or any modern commodity warehouse. But this is a food bank or, more accurately, a food bank distribution warehouse. Every major Canadian city has one. The largest send out nearly 8 million kilograms of food a year to the hungry people lining up at community-based food banks.

Yet each time I visit such warehouses, I find myself alternating between hope and despair. Hope born of the understanding that all of this is motivated by the human urge to help others with that most basic of needs: food. Despair because this effort, and that of food banks all over Canada, has not solved the problem of hunger. On the contrary, I believe food banking makes it worse.