The Hunger Game

Food banks may compound the very problems they should be solving

• 1,247 words

Picture a vast warehouse the size of a football field. Forklifts stand loaded with wooden pallets and cardboard boxes tightly secured with heavy-duty plastic wrap. In aisle upon aisle, boxes sit on metal shelves that reach all the way to the ceiling. It might be an IKEA store or any modern commodity warehouse. But this is a food bank or, more accurately, a food bank distribution warehouse. Every major Canadian city has one. The largest send out nearly 8 million kilograms of food a year to the hungry people lining up at community-based food banks.

The scale and sophistication of these operations are impressive. There are hundreds of employees and volunteers who handle thousands of donated food items, trucks and boxes, cans and bags. There is also a large fridge and freezer section for storing all manner of perishables.

Yet each time I visit such warehouses, I find myself alternating between hope and despair. Hope born of the understanding that all of this is motivated by the human urge to help others with that most basic of needs: food. Despair because this effort, and that of food banks all over Canada, has not solved the problem of hunger. On the contrary, I believe food banking makes it worse.

Pearly Straits

Charity as inheritance

Illustration by Beata Kruszynski
Beata Kruszynski

The streets of Dickensian London were overrun by street urchins and ragamuffins, who relied on handouts to survive. In 1875, an orphaned street sweeper named Henry Croft decided to pay homage to cockney costermongers (as fruit and vegetable vendors were then called), who sported shiny baubles on the seams of their clothing to stand out in the marketplace. Covered in pearl buttons, his flashy outfit generated so much attention that passers-by began to give him money. He donated much of his earnings back to his orphanage, and recruited others to do the same. The Pearlies, as they became known, are often held up as an example of the working class looking after its own, but today the title is as closely guarded as a baronetcy: Pearly Kings and Queens must marry into or inherit their places in the charitable association.

Isabel Slone

Most Canadians assume that food banks have always been with us, but they only began to pop up across the country in the ’80s, in response to the economic downturn. They were meant to be temporary. Among the first was the Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto. By the time I took over as its executive director in the late ’90s, the Stop was already a tiny, broken-down place handing out donated cans and boxes of cheap, highly processed food to broken-down people. Even then, we knew we were doing little to stem the tide of hunger and poverty among the most vulnerable in our Davenport West community. But it was also clear that thousands of recipients, many of them children, relied on these handouts to survive. They had nowhere else to go.

Funded almost entirely by individual and corporate donations, food banks have become an unquestioned part of our social fabric, and our primary response to hunger. From the outside—hell, even from inside those warehouses—they seem to be doing a good job of it. There are walkathons and barbecues, a food drive at almost every school during the “hunger seasons” around Christmas and Easter. CBC collects hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of kilograms of food during its Sounds of the Season holiday broadcast. The big food corporations have established close ties with large distribution centres, donating surplus packaged goods, making financial contributions, and getting employees to pitch in on sorting days. Churches, law firms, youth groups, and many, many committed individuals generously support the cause every day with their money, food, and time.

These people are doing such a good job that it can look as if the problem has been solved. Our elected officials feel no political heat to tackle the issue, because feeding the hungry is already checked off our collective to-do list. But even while food banks have proliferated, hunger has increased. Certainly, they can serve as a valuable support in emergencies, but too many users are forced to rely on them regularly. Nearly 900,000 Canadians (38 percent of them children) turned to food banks each month last year—a 31 percent rise overall since before the recession began in 2008. And these figures do not even take into account the hundreds of thousands who need assistance but don’t seek it, in part because of the associated stigma. Many who do use food banks routinely go hungry. Futhermore, the poor—who receive mostly cheap processed items in their hampers—are disproportionately affected by such diet-related illnesses as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

Food banks, with all of their collecting and sorting and distributing and thanking, are meeting the needs of everyone except the people they were set up to help: the poor and hungry. This emergency handout approach divides us as citizens, breaking down our society into us and them, givers and takers. The former feel generous and kind, while the latter feel ashamed, their agency, their health, and their dignity diminished.

We not only can do better, we must do better. We need to stop cheering on an approach that has already failed, and instead focus on the root of the problem: people are hungry because they are poor. They do not have enough money for food because of inadequate income supports, minimum wages that do not cover the bills, and the lack of affordable housing and child care. Instead of further entrenching food banks that let governments—and all of us—off the hook, we need to build organizations that foster the political will to tackle poverty and establish social programs, employment strategies, and supports that give all Canadians access to affordable, healthy meals. In the end, the costs of inequality and poor health are borne by all of us, straining our health care system, and compromising the safety of our neighbourhoods and the productivity of our nation.

Food can be a powerful tool, and in the past decade we have seen a surge in school gardens, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture. At the Stop, we have utilized this new energy and thinking to help establish programs where low-income people are offered more than mere handouts; rather, they are given opportunities to grow, cook, eat, and learn about the healthy food we all need. Such programs build hope, skills, and self-worth among our community members, who may then become powerful advocates for change—to both the food system and the political one. This model has radically altered our neighbourhood and generated enough interest to galvanize a network of Community Food Centres across the country.

The towers of cans and boxes, the forklifts, and the volunteers in this warehouse and others demonstrate the compassion we feel for one another, and the desire among Canadians to tackle hunger. But it is time to have a frank conversation about the limitations of this approach and start harnessing that caring and the engagement with food issues into a new political force. We need to ask ourselves and our elected representatives how we can make real, lasting change, and ensure that everyone finds health and dignity at our nation’s table.—With Andrea Curtis

Visit Community Food Centres Canada on Facebook, or follow @aplaceforfood on Twitter.

This appeared in the April 2013 issue.

Nick Saul is president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada. He is the author, with Andrea Curtis, of The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (Random House, 2013).

  • disqus_XvMYyJW01T

    Saul, one would have to agree with a few points expressed in your article. Once you raise the sword to tackle the larger battle – poverty (food) & politics, the ordeal begins to grow like a russet burbank. Sure it’s good to have a position but, I have to draw the line. Food banks do have impact, or at least, a role. Food banks in the area have a true grassroots role especially with families suffering from mental illness, addiction, employment, and so on. Yes, some foods lack nutritional value but with a little intuition and perhaps a stronger stance from larger players (I’m look at you farmer/food associations), healthy food can become a priority. Truth be told, I take a unique approach as a volunteer.

    Back to poverty and politics for a moment. Further research is required. One would have
    to investigate the impact major players (grocery chains, Foodland Ontario, Dairy Farmers of Ontario) should have.

    The topic of poverty is the root. Poverty and food should be back on the political agenda.
    The question is When? Where? Who? There once was a man named Gerard Kennedy.

    As usual, lots of questions, little answers and most of all, lack of action.

    • grey beck

      You make some excellent points. Indeed larger players should be more conscientious in this regard. What I found unsettling was how advantageous it was for volunteers to have first crack at the stacks – leaving mostly the crap (and grass roots) for those waiting for the doors to open. (: prairie region)

  • Stephen Rees

    “they only began to pop up across the country in the ’80s, in response to the economic downturn.”

    Really? I thought that food banks started to appear when government started cutting benefit payments – income support, welfare, what ever you want to call it – to the poor. This is part of the neo-conservative mantra that the poor are lazy and feckless and need to have government payments to them reduced to make them work harder and be more productive. At exactly the same time taxes were being cut in order to provide an incentive for rich people to work harder and be more productive. Quite why incentives work in opposite directions for the poor and the rich was never explained. But income transfer is taking place from the poorer to the richer and inequality has steadily increased. At the same time the “trickle down” of wealth that was supposed to happen hasn’t. Nor has the rising tide raised all boats.

    A great deal of time and effort is exerted to recover tiny amounts that have been overpaid to the poor – with significant punishments too – but nothing at all is done about the huge amounts squirrelled away in tax havens, all of which are flourishing.

    Our tax system has become steadily more regressive – relying less on income tax and more on sales taxes and a whole host of fees and charges.

    Unfortunately, the majority of voters have been bemused by the rhetoric and story telling of the right. All that is needed to end food banks is to go back to a progressive income tax system that levies most on those most able to pay. At the same time, efforts to chase small sums should be scaled back as resources are devoted to tax evasion and closing down tax havens.

    The food industry cannot operate without generating enormous amounts of waste. About half of the world’s food is discarded. This is to ensure that stores in rich countries, serving overfed people, can offer a wide range of choice and pristine “fresh” food of attractive appearance. Without this egregious level of waste there would be much less choice. Food banks are simply better PR than full dumpsters.

  • Tide Waters

    Did a participatory research study from 2004 to 2005 of women in poverty. Without exception, the women said they were grateful for the existence of food banks – and also that food banks were part of the problem. Those receiving social assistance, including the women with disabilities, said they were told when they first applied for help that they were expected to use the local food bank to meet their food needs; because the assistance provided by government would be inadequate to meet those needs.

  • PastorAlex McGilvery

    My partner, Alexandra Beasse and I were part of Ontario’s Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition’s social audit back in 2010. The resulting book is available from ISARC. We heard stories of people who struggled to find dignity in the midst of poverty. Foodbanks are a growing business. Many of them limit the food they hand out and the number of times people can get assistance. Often their shelves are filled with the castoffs from the major grocery chains. One food bank I visited showed me a tiny shelf in the midst of the clutter of cans and boxes. It was the tiny amount of food that was for special diets – diabetic, gluten free etc.

    Poverty is cost our country billions in higher health costs, justice costs and education losses, not to mention the lost productivity. Eliminating poverty is not only the right thing to do, it is essential for our economy. Foodbanks are not the answer.

  • Paul Hughes

    It is society’s business to put food banks out of business.

  • Barb

    Talk to your government. Withdraw from the elitist mentality they live by and talk to them about your fellow man. It is their job to listen and do what we ask of htem with regard to social issues. Life changes, and so should policy accordingly.

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  • Christopher B. Langer

    While Nick Saul promotes his own programs fiercely, there is little comparative research on whether clients are better served by ‘modern’ food bank approaches that prioritise skill building over food distribution. It may be that, as poverty are clients’ problem first and foremost, community kitchens, gardening, and similar projects do little to boost their purchasing power, leaving them too poor to apply their new knowledge and taking home fewer calories than before from The Stop or other organizations that have food banks. And yes, last time I was there The Stop still had a food bank on premises. Until we begin the much more difficult work of tackling systemic inequality and poverty, these dated, ineffective programs will still be necessary. Other reading if you’re interested:

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