As food banks struggle to cope with rising demand, they – and politicians – could learn valuable lessons from volunteers in Canada about the precarious nature of charity food provision.

Curiously, this rather wonderful protest song (above) is not sung by impatient young Marxists, but wise old mainstays of the community in Sudbury, Ontario. The “big society”, if you like. For years they have been volunteers at the local food banks. And they’ve had enough.

In fact, though they express themselves politely, they are furious. Alf Judd, the director of operations at Georgina Community Food Pantry, explained their frustration:

“I began volunteering with the food bank in 1990 thinking I would do this for a couple of years; here I am 22 years later.”

More than 400,000 Ontarians turn to food banks every month, said Mike Balkwill of Put Food in the Budget, which is organizing a daylong forum for about 50 students from Yorkdale Secondary School and West End Alternative Secondary School.

“Hunger is a symptom of poverty. And poverty is about low income,” he said.

“Social assistance rates are too low to ensure people have enough money for food after paying rent. People on minimum wage are going to food banks because minimum wage still keeps them below the poverty line,” added Balkwill, whose provincial group is pushing to raise welfare rates and the minimum wage.

It has been three years since Ontario’s low-wage workers got a boost of extra cash when the Liberal government of the day raised a minimum wage that had been frozen for nearly a decade.

Indeed, poverty activists have been pushing for a $14 mandatory minimum. But Wynne’s recent budget did not offer immediate change. It provided some extra money to social assistance recipients, but for the 8 per cent of the workforce that is earning the minimum it promised only an advisory panel of business, worker and youth representatives to examine possible adjustments. The panel is to report back six months after the budget is passed. It will “consult widely” to see how the minimum wage is set up in other provinces. Some provinces index wages based on the consumer price index while others rely on minimum wage boards or advisory committees.

What if the little old ladies who run the neighborhood church food pantry rebelled? What if they said “we’re 70 years old, we’ve been feeding people for 20 years, and hell if we want to do it for another 20?” What if they demanded that the government reduce the incidence of poverty so that food pantries don’t need to exist in the first place?

Hard to imagine? Well, that’s exactly what has happened in the province of Ontario. With the support of an experienced community organizer, volunteers from emergency meal programs, and food banks (what we call a food pantry in the U.S.) have decided to form a “union.” They’re calling it Freedom 90, a spoof on the “Freedom 55” financial planning advertisements that promise the good life to Canadians who work hard and invest their savings wisely, so they can retire by 55.

Ontario’s best hope of creating a modern, humane social assistance system has expired.

Thursday’s provincial budget was its last gasp. Premier Kathleen Wynne wanted to do the right thing. She was prepared to take a political risk for the 850,000 Ontarians struggling to get by on subsistence-level welfare payments. But three months into the job, she realized there was no realistic prospect of “charting a new course on social assistance” as a far-sighted provincial commission proposed. Even the people she aimed to help were balking.

So the premier took the safe, conventional route. She made a couple of minor changes to the existing program. They won’t break the bank or ruffle many feathers. In fact, most Ontarians won’t notice them at all. It was exactly the same strategy her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, had followed.

At this point the economic case for austerity — for slashing government spending even in the face of a weak economy — has collapsed. Claims that spending cuts would actually boost employment by promoting confidence have fallen apart. Claims that there is some kind of red line of debt that countries dare not cross have turned out to rest on fuzzy and to some extent just plain erroneous math. Predictions of fiscal crisis keep not coming true; predictions of disaster from harsh austerity policies have proved all too accurate.

Yet calls for a reversal of the destructive turn toward austerity are still having a hard time getting through. Partly that reflects vested interests, for austerity policies serve the interests of wealthy creditors; partly it reflects the unwillingness of influential people to admit being wrong. But there is, I believe, a further obstacle to change: widespread, deep-seated cynicism about the ability of democratic governments, once engaged in stimulus, to change course in the future.

Looking for affordable accommodations in York Region?

Don’t make plans for the next 10 years or so.

The waiting list for rent-geared-to-income units is about 9,500 families long, meaning some of those families will wait a decade or more for subsidized housing, depending on the size of unit they seek and their desired location, community and health services commissioner Adelina Urbanski said.

Part of the reason the waiting list has grown by leaps and bounds is because there’s just no supply out there, Ms Urbanski said, adding thing worsened when the economic downturn hit.

And while the region would like to build more affordable housing to meet the growing need, funding — or lack thereof — limits how much help it can provide at any given time.