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.

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.