every one talks the talk about change , But sadly it never happens and nothing ever seem to get fixed.
Apr. 11, 2006. 05:05 AM
When Gerard Kennedy came to Toronto in 1986 to run the Daily Bread Food Bank, hunger was the city's dirty little secret.
A poll that year showed half of Torontonians believed world hunger was a serious problem. But only one in 10 thought it was a local issue. By the end of that year, however, Kennedy had put local hunger on the front pages of every newspaper and on every radio and television broadcast in Toronto.
Kennedy forced Toronto to look at the poverty in its own back yard. For a city that still saw itself as Toronto the Good, it was shocking. And the city responded.
Fire halls and grocery stores collected food. The Blue Jays became the first professional baseball team in North America to hold food drives during games. The Star became the first newspaper to distribute brown paper grocery bags so readers could contribute.
An impressive $1 million worth of food was collected during that year's Thanksgiving food drive. Ten years later, Daily Bread was the largest in the country, raising $30 million worth of food annually.
Kennedy walked away from this charmed career in 1996 to make an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the provincial Liberal leadership. Last week, the popular Ontario education minister left his post to seek the federal Liberal leadership. His decade at Daily Bread is widely seen as an experience that will differentiate him in this race.
For Kennedy — just 25 when he moved here from Edmonton, where he founded that city's food bank — food banks weren't only about feeding people. They were a vehicle for educating the public about social justice and what it means to live in a civil society. He was critical of welfare rates and a social assistance system that trapped people in poverty. He complained about the lack of affordable housing that forced families to choose between paying rent and buying groceries. And he warned about the impact of hunger on kids.
But Kennedy knew passion alone wouldn't change policy. He needed facts. So the food bank began to collect data on clients to strengthen the case.
In 1988, he hired Sue Cox, an Australian who had been working in the American anti-poverty movement, to handle advocacy and community action.
"He was a type I had encountered in the United States,'' says Cox, who ran Daily Bread from 1996 until she retired earlier this year. "He was young, smart, and quite zealous. The interesting thing about people like that is that they are what they appear to be. He walks the talk."
Cox laughs when she remembers her job interview.
"I didn't even have a resumé. But I had a few press clippings," she says. "He always says I came with my media credentials."
Kennedy's media stunts were legendary. During one food drive, he convinced journalists to live on a food bank diet and report on the experience. Another time, hundreds of donors took up his challenge to write personal messages to politicians on the bags they filled with groceries, which were then dump-ed on the Legislature floor.
Kennedy's tousled blond hair and personal magnetism turned many heads. Female newspaper columnists swooned in print, dubbing him the city's most eligible bachelor, Cox remembers. More than a few female volunteers were drawn to the cause, just to meet him.
"He was absolutely oblivious to it," Cox laughs.
Kennedy married Jeanette Arsenault in 1991 after a courtship that began in Edmonton.
Food banks have existed in various forms for generations. But until Kennedy arrived they were viewed as a necessary evil, not to be encouraged. And many social activists feared that building up food banks would take pressure off government.
Former Toronto councillor Joanne Campbell, a socially progressive politician who represented the Regent Park area at the time was one of the few politicians who urged Metro Council not to support the growth of food banks locally.
"I just didn't believe this was the right direction to be headed," says Campbell, who never sparred directly with Kennedy on the issue. "I felt we were institutionalizing food banks as a second-tier support system."
Another person troubled by Kennedy's wild success was Bill Bosworth, founder of the Homes First Society, which believed the homeless needed affordable housing not hostels.
"Ideally, you want to be addressing both the short-term solutions to homelessness and hunger while working on the long-term policy solutions," he says. "Gerard seemed to understand that and talked about wanting to shut down Daily Bread. But he never did. And the food bank got bigger."
Anti-poverty activist Michael Shapcott, who helped form a number of prominent protest groups in the late 1980s and early 1990s, feels Kennedy was better at redistributing food to the needy than changing the system that made food banks necessary.
"There was a sense that Gerard didn't want to rock the boat with his corporate sponsors by pointing to the root causes of hunger in our community," says Shapcott, an NDP candidate in the last federal election.
However, Kennedy had fans in social justice circles for his ability to lever the active involvement of so many donors, both private and corporate.
Fiona Nelson, a former Toronto School Board trustee and member of the city's health board, recalls Kennedy's energy.
"He had this amazing ability to guilt people into giving and paying attention to this issue," she says. But Nelson is distressed at how poverty and hunger in the city has increased in the 20 years since Kennedy revved up Toronto's food bank network.
"He was a constant thorn in the sides of the policy makers," she says. "I'm just sorry he wasn't a sword."