Hunger is 100 per cent preventable

David Northcott used to be a banker. Now, he feeds the hungry. “The economy can’t fit everyone,” he said.

David Northcott used to be a banker.

Now, he feeds the hungry.

“The economy can’t fit everyone,” he said.

“The economy fits people into jobs.

“But on the social side, you have to fit jobs around people.”

Northcott still talks like a banker.

But for the last 20 years he’s dealt in people, not money.

Co-founder of Winnipeg Harvest, a food bank that nourishes 39,000 people a month, Northcott is an entrepreneur.

But his profit is not measured in capital gains.

It’s measured in compassion.

“The economic engine’s value of success is profit,” said Northcott.

“And profit’s not a dirty word.

“But the problem is when the economy rises and it doesn’t carry the boat that’s left floating in low income water.”

Northcott flew to Whitehorse for a day and a half to speak to the public at a Homelessness Awareness Week potluck and at several schools.

On Tuesday morning he met with some Grade 11 students in the Vanier Catholic Secondary School library.

Before the classes arrived, Northcott dumped a pile on candy on one of the desks.

“Watch, I’m going to oppress them,” he whispered.

Dividing the students in two groups, Northcott started a game, without really explaining too many rules.

It involved commodities, the candy on the table, and was based on logic.

He gave them less time than he promised and stopped the game early.

“I purposefully manipulated you,” he told the students.

“I was vague about the rules, I gave you less time than I promised and the conquest, or candy, forced you to focus on the wrong stuff.”

He was trying to draw a parallel with money and powerlessness, but it was lost on some of the students who just couldn’t stop fiddling with the candy.

Northcott talks in schools all the time, and five days a week he hosts groups of Winnipeg students at his food bank.

“They are our going to be our leaders,” he said.

“We built all these schools for them, so they must be really important people.”

Tuesday, he asked the Vanier students to define poverty.

“Not having enough money to buy stuff,” yelled out a student.

But, it’s not just about money, said Northcott.

“Money is power,” he said.

“But power is more than this.

“And by redefining power we can reduce poverty.”

On the chalkboard, Northcott wrote up a list. It included words like love, spirit, friendship and knowledge.

“I want to stretch the definition of poverty sideways,” he said.

“It’s not about poverty, it’s about power — who has power and who doesn’t.”

Northcott mentioned a friend of his, Big Bill.

Big Bill lived on the streets for a long time, and, eventually, ended up in a rundown, tiny downtown hotel for $268 a month.

“We worked it out and he was paying about $40 a square foot,” said Northcott.

“Welfare was giving him $5,000 a year to live.

“And people judge welfare recipients terribly.”

But when Big Bill turned 65, things changed.

He received his Canada Pension and could apply for social housing. He’s now paying about $14 a square foot and can afford healthier food.

“He’s treated like a citizen now,” said Northcott.

“And all it took was a birthday.”

Social assistance rates are crummy, added Northcott.

Over the last 20 years they’ve gone down, while the cost of living has gone up.

“The safety net is so broken,” he said.

And the Yukon is no exception, said anti-poverty coalition member Sue Edelman, who sits on the Vanier Institute of the Family board with Northcott.

“We’ve put out a call for proposals for a local food bank,” she said, watching Northcott play the candy game.

Right now, if a hungry family gets its three-day supply of food from the Salvation Army Food Bank, that family can’t return for more for five weeks, said Edelman.

And it doesn’t give out fresh food.

So, there are all these malnourished kids who aren’t getting eggs, milk, fruit and veggies, she said.

“It’s all food you need a house to prepare, like rice and canned food — it’s not portable.”

“We have to make sure the safety net truly catches people,” said Northcott.

“And right now it doesn’t.”

Human rights need to be wrestled to low-income people, he said.

Because, right now, they have no right to food, shelter, water or fuel.

“What concrete actions can these students take to effect change,” asked a Vanier teacher as Northcott wrapped up.

“You can reflect on how powerful you are,” he told the classes.

“You can do your homework on issues — look at what local companies are paying their workers, and the hours they are giving them.

“Look at what politicians are doing, and visit soup kitchens.

“Then you should decide what action you want to take.”

Maybe poverty can’t be eradicated completely, said Northcott.

But hunger is 100-per-cent curable.

“Why not have a Yukon that’s hunger-free, and never have the need for a food bank,” he said.

Homelessness awareness events continue all week.

Wednesday at 7 p.m., Mark Connell and Maura Sullivan speak about poverty in Israel and Palestine at the Centre de la Francophone.

Thursday, women speak about poverty in the Elijah Smith Building lobby at noon.

Then from 5 to 7 p.m. the old Cranberry Bistro is showing artwork created to raise awareness about women in poverty.

On Friday youth speak out on poverty from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the Elijah Smith lobby.

And all day, at the YTG main entrance, read what kids think about poverty.

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