Posts Tagged ‘food banks’


These days, there’s scarcely a retail store you can enter without being confronted with a collection bin for a local food bank. Even the LCBO has one! (The liquor store. Are they hoping for donations of beer? The poor could probably use one.) And every time I see a collection bin, I wince. It’s embarrassing. I feel so ashamed of us Canadians. Here we are, one of the most fortunate of nations, and yet we expect our poorest citizens to beg for food from strangers.

The biggest problem with food banks is that they simply can’t meet the needs of the hungry. Many food banks are so overwhelmed that they must limit households to one hamper per month. The supplies they are able to provide do not insure users will have nutritious diets. Food banks can only supply what is donated, often canned and boxed goods, with few fresh items.

Further, food banks only reach a minority of those in need. A survey by Human Resources Development Canada showed that only one in four “hungry” Canadians used food banks. Others would rather go hungry than accept charity, or they choose to leave what is available for those who they believe ‘really’ need it. See It’s Time to Close Canada’s Foodbanks by Elaine Power)

Beyond feeding the hungry, food banks serve less conspicuous functions. Food banks unintentionally divide citizens into ‘Haves’, those who make donations, volunteer or participate in food drives, who can feel good about helping out, and the ‘Have Nots’, who may be demoralized at having to accept handouts. This reinforces an old charitable model, where one group of privileged people helps the underprivileged, perpetuating an us-and-them atmosphere.

Food banks are good for corporations, especially food corporations, who may use food banks to offload edible food they can’t sell while advertising themselves as caring businesses. Grocery stores invite shoppers to buy extra supplies to donate in their collection bins. Some even offer pre-packaged bundles you can purchase for donation. Corporations may thus be content with the status quo.

In providing a band-aid solution, food banks allow governments to sidestep their obligation to look after the well-being and security of all citizens. The failure of governments to deal with poverty has been a growing problem in Canada, with income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, increasing every year.

In Ontario, 375,814 people were assisted by a food bank in March of 2013. Of those 35% were children. That compares to 314,258 in March of 2008, an increase of 19.6%. This is not a problem that is going away. (Numbers from Food Banks Canada’s report Hunger Count 2013, linked here.

No one wants people to go hungry. That’s what prompted the establishment of food banks in the first place. But they were only ever intended as a strategy to hold things together until better solutions were found. Now here we are, decades later, and things haven’t improved. Food banks represent our failure as a just society. It’s time for governments to start tackling the real issue behind food banks: poverty.

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The Stop: How the fight for good food transformed a community and inspired a movement by Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis. Random House Canada 2013.

When Nick Saul was hired in 1998 as the new executive director of The Stop, a food bank in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhood of Davenport West, the organization was in trouble. He settled into a tiny office in the cramped, run-down space alloted to The Stop on the ground-floor of the Symington Place public housing building. A single staffer and a handful of dedicated but tired volunteers were barely keeping The Stop afloat. A decade later, in 2009, the transformed Stop opened a satellite location called the Green Barn. It was visited by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who declared The Stop to be “Toronto’s food mecca”. This success story didn’t happen overnight, and in The Stop, Saul relates the sometimes rocky road that led from his early days at a struggling food bank to a new community food model.

Food banks are a relatively recent phenomenon. They were originally developed in Arizona in the 1980s. Food Banks were designed to be a temporary measure to help people during a 1980s economic recession. But they have become a permanent fixture in communities all across North America. The first official food bank in Canada was opened in Edmonton in 1981, where incoming people looking for work in the oil fields were sometimes left unemployed and hungry.

In Ontario, hunger took an upswing with the Mike Harris government’s “Common Sense Revolution” (1995-2002), which, with a lot of rhetoric about lazy poor people, set about slashing and burning the social welfare system, chopping welfare rates by 21.6 percern and cancelling new affordable housing projects.

The Davenport neighbourhood, long an area settled by new immigrants, was once known for its factories, including General Electric, American Standard and a baked goods plant. But as the factories shut down, many people in the area struggled to find stable employment. With most of the factory jobs gone, the jobs that remain are often poorly paid service sector positions. Residents, already struggling, were hard-hit by the government’s common sense.

Food banks can never be more than a stop-gap measure. Saul began moving The Stop away from the old charitable model to one that sought to bring dignity and support to needy area residents through an integrated systems approach. A first step began in that spring of 1998, when a local parks supervisor proposed using an overgrown bocce court in a local park for a vegetable plot. That fall, the food bank was enriched by a truckload of fresh garden produce. The garden didn’t just produce food. It inspired community interest and the participation of local citizens.

Gradually, The Stop became a centre for programs that helped expectant and new moms make healthy food choices, brought people together over shared meals, taught singles how to prepare nutritional food, and introduced children to the fun of cooking. At The Stop, people can find help with dealing with government bureaucracies or other issues.

In another innovative, mutually helpful program, The Stop forged bonds with The New Farm, a family-run organic acreage near Creemore, Ontario. The Stop is now The New Farm’s single biggest customer, supporting local, sustainable food production while providing top-quality food to the centre.

You can get a better idea of the vitality of The Stop by visiting the website: http://www.thestop.org/ As The Stop has grown, so has its budget. In 1998, the budget was $250,000. Today it is around $4.5 million, no small enterprise.

IN 2011, The Stop model expanded to two new locations. The first of two pilot projects was launched in Perth, Ontario, where it is named The Table Community Food Centre, linked here. A second was started in Stratford, Ontario. Both are very different communities than Davenport West, and face different challenges, such as providing food programming for seniors and serving a wider rural community.

After nearly fifteen years at The Stop, Nick Saul has moved on to developing Community Food Centres on a national scale. In 2014, Community Food Centres Canada, linked here, plans to open new centres in Winnipeg and Dartmouth, NS and another in Toronto.

In this book, Saul not only tells the story of The Stop, but provides plenty of food for thought on food issues and poverty. His story is enlivened by the introduction of some of the many people his work has brought him in contact with at The Stop, and he takes us with him as he travels to Brazil for conferences, farm fundraisers, TTC barns and much more. For anyone with an interest in community and the future of food, The Stop is a great read.

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