About a month ago, I participated in the Welfare Food Challenge. During that week, I shared my experiences of mood swings, fatigue and altered decision making pathways from being hungry with you on this platform. From that unforgettable experience, I had urged the continuation of story sharing in hopes of keeping the conversation of hunger and policy making alive. So here’s to my promise on keeping this dialogue open.
December 2nd 2016 marks the 30th year of CBC Food Bank Day (1)- a perfect segway into the topic of the food bank’s role and efficacy in our nation’s hunger challenge. CBC will open its doors to the public so that people can meet the CBC personalities, and raise money for food banks across the province. No doubt their contributions each year are massive – a heaping $630, 314 dollars raised last holiday season to feeding hungry families (1). And though it is heartening to know that many received a warm and satisfying meal during this time of year, it is somewhat disheartening to know that despite 34 years of Canadian efforts, the hunger challenge has not improved.
To understand the role of food banks, of course, we must first define our topic of conversation and understand its history. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, we use the term “food bank” to describe any cache of food designation for charitable purposes – i.e. “any large-scale food recovery program that redistributes food, free of charge, to the community through existing social service agencies or churches” (2). First started in the United States, the food bank concept was replicated in large scale in Canada by the Edmonton Gleaners Association in in 1981 (2, 3). There was clear evidence that the community’s needs were unmet due to various limitations of existing social service systems. Churches and other agencies began to take on the provision of emergency food services to private homes. They also took on the responsibility of supplementing institutional feeding or kitchen programs with “salvageable” or “surplus” food collected from manufacturers and retailers. This startup of food banks provided a safety net for those who were unable to access systemic social services, or those whose needs continued to be unmet with the existing support. However, the intention is and has always been a “short term emergency” response to the hunger problem.
Today, there is a network of over 800 food banks and 3000 food programs across Canada. They have gone beyond providing emergency food aid, to offer support in forms of skill building, community kitchens and gardens, and aid in searching for job, housing or affordable child care. Just last week, CBC announced that Mississauga has opened the nation’s first aquaponic food bank farm (4)- a sustainable way to meet the lack of freshness provided by most food banks. Some may say that “food banks are no longer just a temporary solution” (5).
Is this boom in number of food banks across the country due to an improved awareness around hunger and an increase in charity? Or is this a response to the increasing demand of those needing food aid?
Most appropriate during this time of year, when the gift of giving seems to woft around in the air, I encourage everyone to take a moment to think about what it means. When we decide our holiday dinner menu, and are bombarded with choices of gifts to pick up, take a moment to think about what choices our neighbours have.
In general, there are three layers of food bank users.First being: go hungry or go to the food bank – too many of Canadians are dependant on food banks to make ends meet. In March of this year, 863, 492 people received food from a food bank (6). Of this, 36% are children and youth (6). Since 2015, 8 out of 10 provinces saw an increase (6). Nationally, there has a been a growth of 28% in food bank usage since 2008 (6).The big question here to ask is, why are these numbers climbing? It’s now seven years since the economic downturn. When speaking of food security, it is inevitable that availability, access and utilization of food are discussed. Hence, financial and job security is definitely a factor. But statistics show that 1 in 6 households receiving assistance from food banks are currently or recently employed, 18% are on disability related income supports, 45% are on social assistance and 8% live on a pension (6). That is the second layer: low paying work or inadequate benefits. A joint report by University of Victoria and Union Gospel Mission recently released found that the number of seniors waiting for subsidized housing in Vancouver has increased 38% over the last 5 years (7, 8). That is the outcome of the third layer : food vs rent. According to the latest news in Ontario, there’s been a sharp rise of 35% more seniors turning to food banks for assistance (from a report by the Ontario Association of Food Banks(9)). A total of 10,000 more visits than last year. With lack of rental units in our metro hubs, rental prices are skyrocketing – a simple matter of supply and demand.
Food banks definitely have a role in our community. Bringing people together form volunteers to facilitators and consumers. We have been led to believe that the way to express community compassion to those that are hungry, low income, or homeless is through charitable food handouts. Though food banks have helped an unsurmountable amount of people during hardship, it has also adopted a social construct of ‘food philanthropy’ rather than a political and human right issue. Without knowing, food bank culture has started feeding the public perception that hunger is a matter for charity. Has it begun to undermine social solidarity and cohesion by dividing the community into two groups (those who give vs those who receive)?
Some argue that food banks it is time to close food banks – that they should not exist, in order to remind the government of its obligations to provide adequate levels of income security and a restructured, publicly-funded social safety net to ensure affordable food for all (3, 10). Is that true? Has this corporatization of charity enabled our governments to turn their attention to more seemingly “imminent” concerns? Have we made domestic hunger invisible as a human rights and social justice issue on Canada’s public policy agenda? I will leave that for each of you to determine for yourselves.
The intent of this article is not to scrutinize the kind and hard work of our food banks, but to remember the initial intentions and some of the challenges our communities continue to face. To begin an attempt to understand the culture around food bank use and the effects it has beyond the direct, immediate satisfaction of receiving food. It is clear that food banks are not a long term solution. If you speak with anyone who relies on, volunteers or works at a food bank, you might hear concerns of running out of food, receiving calorically-dense but nutritionally-empty items, expired food items, or better yet, non-food items (“unwanted items” such as hair spray were received by the GVFB (11)). The idea is to stimulate thoughts and insights around the hunger issue, our current situation, its efficacy, and how we can move forward.
So whether you choose to explore the insides of CBC and donate to help food banks, or join the “Poor People’s Radio” to highlight the need for actions to tackle the causes of hunger (poverty), I hope you begin to ask some questions. If you pass by a food donation box, be more observant to what is within, and be more aware of what you might like to add to the box, your intentions and how you might feel about them. If you get a chance to volunteer or work in a food bank, or meet someone who receives assistance from the food bank, strike up a conversation and listen to their experiences. If you do decide to donate, consider donating cash instead; food banks are able to purchase in bulk – one dollar donated is able to purchase three dollars worth of food that they need.
- CBC. (2016, December 1). Meet your favourite CBC personalities at annual open house & food bank day. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/cbc-vancouver-opening-doors-for-annual-open-house-food-bank-day-1.3869436
- Canadian Encyclopedia. Food Banks. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/food-banks/
- Riches, G. (2011, February 1). Why governments can safely ignore hunger. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/why-governments-can-safely-ignore-hunger
- CBC. (2016, November 24). Mississauga opens Canada’s first aquaponic food bank farm. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/mississauga-aquaponics-1.3865423
- Jaffer, S. M. (2013, August 8). Food banks are no longer just a temporary solution Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/senator-mobina-jaffer/food-bank-use-canada_b_3719111.html
- Food Banks Canada. (2016, March ). Hunger Count 2016. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from Food Banks Canada Hunger Count Report, https://www.foodbankscanada.ca/getmedia/6173994f-8a25-40d9-acdf-660a28e40f37/HungerCount_2016_final_singlepage.pdf.aspx?ext=.pdf
- University of Victoria and Union Gospel Mission. (2016). Affordability and Homelessness in Vancouver. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from http://www.ugm.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/HAW_Report_Final-Oct11.pdf
- CBC. (2016, October 19). Vancouver seniors are becoming increasingly vulnerable to homelessness, report finds. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-seniors-are-becoming-increasingly-vulnerable-to-homelessness-report-finds-1.3812074
- Lee, S. (2015, November 30). Food bank report shows Ontario seniors struggling to get by. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/food-banks-ontario-1.3342191
- Power, E. (2012, September 6). It’s time to close Canada’s food banks. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/its-time-to-close-canadas-food-banks/article587889/
- CBC. (2016, March 31). Unwanted donations eating up Vancouver food bank’s time and money. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-food-bank-warns-against-unwanted-donations-1.3515798