In 1998, when I took over The Stop, a small, under-resourced food bank in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto, it was like hundreds of other makeshift, church-basement charities popping up across the country. Lineups wound out the door. When you got to the front, you were handed a hamper of largely unhealthy processed food – corporate castoffs – intended to last a few days. It was a place where people kept their eyes on the floor and checked their dignity at the door.

With many of the same people returning regularly – plus new recipients daily – it didn’t take long to realise the food bank was doing little to stem the tide of need. And the fatty, sugary and salt–laden food was a health crisis on a plate. Even with the handouts, people still went hungry, took on debt to pay for food, and were forced to make impossible choices between paying their rent and feeding their kids.

Charitable food banks, it turns out, are good for the corporate food donors who save on dumping fees and cultivate social capital; well-meaning volunteers who feel good about helping the “needy”; politicians who point to them as evidence the problem is being dealt with – everyone, except the people they were set up to help.

What do Andrew Coyne, the Green party, and the Conference Board of Canada have in common? They’re all onto a relatively simple idea that could help solve a significant conundrum being discussed in Ottawa right now: the high toll poverty is taking on the health of Canadians.

According to the CMA, people living in poverty are almost twice as likely to be hospitalized. They experience higher rates of disability, mental illness, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Poverty is making them sick.

But there’s more: poverty is putting an incredible strain on our health-care system and taxpayers’ dollars. Studies have estimated as much as 20 per cent, or $41 billion, of total health-care spending in Canada can be attributed to income disparities.

You can always tell when democracy is in a period of decline when there is an increase in volunteerism, charity and celebrity status. It sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out. We have entered a phase where civil society has to pick up the slack from where governments increasingly leave off. It’s something of a mug’s game, where more becomes expected of citizens than is required of government.

And then there is that third great sector that doesn’t really have to worry about such things very much at all. The fabulously wealthy, the businesses they run and own, and the financial institutions through which they flourish – become increasingly disconnected from the daily lives of average Canadians and feel little connection to country anymore; their lives are spent more internationally than domestically, as is their wealth.

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is rapidly approaching, commemorating the historic Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

But 45 years ago, 1968, the year of his assassination, King was waging the Poor People’s Campaign to eradicate poverty. He addressed the congregation at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., saying: “We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.”

King’s words from that National Cathedral speech ring true today, as we face again the crisis of poverty and hunger: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

We’re thirty years into a slow-motion famine in Canada. And what’s worse, it is a famine that was planned for, and brought about by, our own government in order to funnel more money into the pockets of the 1%. They knew what they were doing, they decided to do it, and they were amply warned when they did it. But no member of the Mulroney government (or any of those that followed without reversing the policies) will ever be brought to bar to answer for the destruction and death their policies have caused.

… While most threats to food security come from natural hazards–lack of rainfall, global warming, desertification– we don’t expect the hazard to be caused by our own government. Particularly not in a “democracy” such as ours. But that is exactly what the neo-liberal policies pursued under Mulroney et al. have done. Food banks sprang up immediately as the Mulroney government attacked income re-distributive programmes in Canada. And they have never gone away.