This post discusses some of the limitations of food banks. Those limitations haven’t changed since 2011. Indeed, new Canadian research of food banks across the country highlights these limitations. In the words of the authors:
The harder food bank operators tried to meet clients’ food needs, the more likely they were to report having to limit food selection, reduce the amount of food given out, and deny people assistance.
The authors conclude that food banks are unable to address hunger in Canada and that we must apply more effective policy interventions to reduce poverty if we really want to ensure that no Canadians are hungry.
[Originally published Saturday, 14 May 2011]
I’ve decided to wait another day, until Sunday, to start my challenge of living on a food bank hamper. I promised a friend some “grunt labour” on Saturday, helping him with moving some rock and stone in his backyard, in exchange for some work he did in my backyard for me last weekend. Expending extra calories in physical labour doesn’t seem like a good idea when my food selection and quantities of food are so limited.
The group of people most vulnerable to food insecurity and hunger, and thus most likely to use a food bank, are those on social assistance. I started my doctoral research about how low-income single mothers feed their families in a small town in the mid-1990s, just after Mike Harris was elected Premier of Ontario. One of the first acts of that government was to slash social assistance rates by almost 22%. The cuts have never been restored. The McGuinty government has raised the rates a bit, but not enough to cover the cost of inflation. With inflation, social assistance rates are at least 40% less than they were before the cuts in 1995. [Note: Increases in social assistance rates remain below the rate of inflation, with the latest increase, in 2015, at 1%.]
But I digress. I was going to say that part of the rhetoric of the Harris government’s cuts to welfare was that communities and neighbours would look after each other. So I thought I would go to a small town to do my research to see if that was the case. I could find little evidence of it. The women I interviewed usually had one or two close family members who would help them out—usually a parent, grandparent, or sibling who would buy extras for the kids, and either feed them or buy them food at the end of the month. No one likes handouts or “something for nothing.” With their family members, the women knew that there was a long-term relationship and they would be able to reciprocate favours, by doing things for them, like accompanying them to doctors’ appointments. Sadly, their family members also tended to live on low-incomes, and just as the social determinants of health literature predicts, they tended to die relatively young. In my research, there were a couple of women whose primary supports had recently died, and they were floundering, trying to figure out how they would make ends meet.
The thoughtful American sociologist, Janet Poppendieck, has written quite a bit about the problems with food banks. She has been a food bank volunteer for many years, and while recognizing the good things that they do, she is very concerned about their limitations. Here is a summary from one of her articles:
- clients of food banks have no legally enforceable rights (unlike social assistance). This means that food banks do not have to serve those who ask for help, or can stop serving them at any time, for any reason, or no reason;
- food banks are dependent on volunteers, donations and good will. When any of these key ingredients run out, food banks have to close their doors, if only temporarily;
- although community members donate purchased food to food banks, food banks also rely on corporate donations of food that are variable in supply, and are disposal driven rather than need driven;
- food banks spring up wherever people are able and willing to set them up, not necessarily where the need is greatest;
- food banks undermine the welfare state by making charity acceptable and normal, lulling people into the idea that charity will take care of people’s basic needs. By promoting “fun” activities to raise money and food for food banks, those who are able to give start to substitute positive for negative associations with hunger;
- food banks divert the time and energy of people who could be advocating for more fundamental political change (or many other worthy causes).
If you’d like to read more about Poppendieck’s analysis of food banks, check out her book, Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement. She writes from an American context, but her main arguments are relevant to Canada.
I am old enough to remember when there were no food banks in Canada; they started in the early-to-mid 1980s during a deep economic recession. Food bank organizers considered themselves “emergency” food providers who would close up shop once economic good times returned. Up until the early 1990s, there were still debates about when the “emergency” would be over, and when food bank doors would close permanently.
Those debates are ancient history now. Food banks have bought the buildings that they once rented and have settled into the landscape as a permanent second tier of food provisioning. Canadian professor of social work, Graham Riches, has argued that food banks became institutionalized once a) governments started relying on food banks to fill in the gaps in the social safety net, b) food banks formed a national organization and c) the national organization formed a partnership with food industry to become the sole national distributor of food donations from major food companies.
One of the most pernicious effects of food banks, like other forms of charity, has been to separate “us,” the givers, from “them,” the receivers. We create an “Other” who is not us, and who makes us feel good about ourselves when we think we are helping “them.” If we practiced compassion and recognized our common humanity, we might think about working towards social justice—establishing structures, policies, and ways of acting and thinking that would eliminate poverty, the root cause of hunger, and promote social and economic equality. And if it is not good enough to promote social justice for its own sake, consider that it turns out to be good for our health too.
Click here if you want to read more about the health impacts of poverty and rising income inequality and how we might turn that around to create a more just, fair and healthier society.