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Thank goodness for food banks – but government should focus elsewhere

When notice of a provincial government news conference to be held at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank arrived on Thursday morning, I was, to say the least, intrigued.

The B.C. Liberal government was still being pummelled for last week's budget, which saw the first increase in social-service benefits (limited to people with disabilities) in nine years mostly clawed back with the elimination of the free bus pass. An already underwhelming $77 increase was reduced to a measly $11 extra a month.

Why on earth would any B.C. Liberal want to get within a country mile of a food bank?

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For all of the good work they do, food banks stand as a daily reminder of the failure of a government to keep up with social-assistance rates.

Food banks are where poor people – many of whom work full-time – go when they have to make a choice between, say, buying a bus pass or putting food in the fridge.

Why underscore that sad fact by setting up a podium?

In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism, I imagined that the government had recognized the problem (not to mention the political liability) of its bus-pass clawback and would announce that it was reinstating the transportation allowance and letting people with disabilities keep the whole 77 bucks.

Okay, making the announcement at a food bank struck me as a little bit awkward and clumsy, but let's just say this is not a group of people well known for their finesse. Plus, they needed a visual. But it was no such thing.

Instead, Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick was on hand, sporting a white cowboy hat and brandishing potatoes for the cameras.

The announcement was that, three years after making the promise, the government was delivering a tax credit to farmers who donate their surplus or unsellable fresh produce to one of the province's 95 food banks. The scheme has been in place in Ontario for the past two years. The B.C. government plan is virtually identical, handing farmers a tax credit equal to 25 per cent of the fair market value of the food. The credit will be available until 2018 and then will be reviewed.

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No word on what the tax credit might amount to in forgone tax revenue.

But it's all good, right? B.C. farmers already donate tonnes of produce to food banks every year – the credit will help cover the expense of packaging and shipping.

And a tax credit to ensure that healthy, nutritious food isn't plowed back into the ground or dumped in a landfill site is an excellent incentive.

More fresh food going to families in need can't be a bad thing, especially with a nine-year freeze on social-service benefits, the second-lowest minimum wage in the country and sky-high lower mainland rents that can easily eat up most of a monthly cheque.

You know, pretty much all of the reasons we have food banks in the first place.

There has always been – and there will always be – a place for charity. And thank goodness people donate enough to keep the food banks afloat.

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But it should be the goal of government to try to improve the lives of those with the least, so charity becomes the final option rather that being entrenched in a broken system to the point of becoming the status quo. In the best of all worlds, we would no longer need food banks.

Ministerial photo ops at food banks are a demonstration that the government hasn't connected the dots between its policies and poverty. Maybe Premier Christy Clark already knows this. Maybe that's why she wasn't there.

Not that Ms. Clark is averse to food-bank photo ops. Just before Christmas in 2013, she was photographed handing over a government cheque for $35,000 to the food bank in her own Kelowna riding. It's posted on her Facebook page.

So she may have intended to be at Thursday's event, but perhaps she ended up distracted by the close proximity of the local SPCA animal shelter.

She may have simply stopped in to cuddle a few of "the most vulnerable members of our society." You know, the ones with four legs.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.

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