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.

At Newmarket’s Valley View Alliance Church yesterday, the York Region Food Network and Freedom 90 joined a Food Secure Canada-sponsored webinar connecting several hundred social service administrators, volunteers and food bank clients to United Nations special rapporteur Olivier De Schutter in Geneva.

The computer-enabled event featured Mr. De Schutter’s report on his 2012 right to food mission to Canada, a coast-to-coast fact-finding commission with food rights stakeholders and government officials.

Canada is a signatory to the United Nations covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and, therefore, has a legal obligation to respect the right to food, yet millions of people struggle to access healthy food on a daily basis, he said.

The Harper government suffered a new international embarassment — despite Canada’s wealth, a new UN report charges the federal government with ignoring prevalent and widespread hunger and malnutrition.

The NDP’s Djaouida Sellah (Saint-Bruno-Saint-Hubert) questioned health minister Leona Aglukkaq in the House over food security for Canada’s poorest people.

“Mr Speaker, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has roundly criticized the Conservatives for their incompetence. We know that the Conservatives ignore the problems of malnutrition and health, but now we have learned that by eliminating the long form census they have made the problem worse.”

“I will not accept the report from a UN rapporteur who studies from afar,” replied

health minister Leona Aglukkaq. “The recommendations would not be affordable for Canadians.”

Later, NDP leader Tom Mulcair told reporters, “What’s most astonishing with the

Conservatives is its consistent behaviour. But today, it’s even more galling than usual. We are talking after all about, about a United Nations Rapporteur.

“Whenever someone tells the Conservative government something they don’t want to hear, they attack the messenger. Very personal attack in the House today. They can’t have it both ways. In the House, the Minister says somebody’s coming from away and telling us what to do and how, how to analyse our problems. But he came here, and while he was here, they were attacking him. Now that he’s filed his report, they’re saying it’s from away.He knew what he was talking about, he did a very good job.”

The Harper government is once again engaged in a war of words with a United Nations agency.

Canada can’t credibly preach human rights on the international stage when too many of its own citizens are going hungry, the UN’s right-to-food envoy, Olivier De Schutter, told The Canadian Press in an interview.

His comments come on the heels of a report De Schutter released Monday in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council that cited several Canadian government policies as impediments to fighting poverty.

They include the cancellation of the long-form census in 2009, the ongoing Canada-EU free trade negotiations and the way Ottawa oversees the money it transfers to the provinces for social services.

“That is worrying because Canada, like any other country, is only credible when it preaches human rights to others if it is irreproachable itself,” De Schutter said.

Everyone on welfare is ravenous. How can you not be, when you are living on $606 a month? Most clients at the Stop Community Food Centre live on less than $6 a day, after paying for rent.

We’d come to The Stop at lunch to eat, but first to listen to Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to food, talk about his report on Canada.

De Schutter spent 10 days travelling from Montreal to Edmonton last May, visiting farmers, first nations bands, government and activist offices as well as food banks, including The Stop on Davenport Rd. just west of Caledonia Park Rd., where Norman told him about the cucumber from heaven.

On Monday, he delivered his report to the United Nations Council on Human Rights in Geneva. He was broadcast live into The Stop’s dining hall on a movie screen.

A taste of his message about Canada to the UN …