Recently, there’s been a lot of media coverage of a new initiative in Woodstock, Ontario called Foods for Friends. The program, run by Operation Sharing, invites people to donate 25 cents at the cash registers of local grocery stores. The funds are then distributed to people in need in the form of a grocery card that is good for non-taxable items, which includes most food staples.
The food cards come in predetermined denominations once a month on one-time use cards—usually $25 for single people, $45 for families of three, and $60 for larger families. Though Foods for Friends won’t be covering a month’s worth of groceries, extra money can really make a difference at the end of the month when many people experience budget constraints.
Ed Keenan wrote about the program back in February for The Toronto Star, and highlights many of the positives: “It removes a lot of the obvious inefficiency in the food bank system — no need for trucks to ship thousands of pounds of cans all around town and back, no need for armies of volunteers to sort donations and assemble boxes, no need for warehouses to store it all.”
The Foods for Friends program shows significant promise when compared to our flawed food charity system. Most foods from banks are preserved or near expiry, and rarely provide the healthiest diets. Food charities are expensive to run and make great demands on volunteers and environmental resources. As such, a growing body of research suggests that they simply do not work.
The state of food charity in Canada
One study of food bank operations in five Canadian cities found that because supply relies on donation, 75% of food banks had issues meeting demand. The only food banks that reported running efficiently and experiencing no issues were those that somehow restricted access through reduced operating hours, limits on number of visits, and who is eligible to use the food bank
In some areas, like Toronto, food bank use is on the rise. The Daily Bread recently released the latest Who’s Hungry report, finding that people with low incomes who live with disabilities (49%) and/or are lone parents (45%) are more likely to visit food banks.
Despite this, and the fact that many food banks provide referrals and other services (as pictured above) they are notoriously underused. Tarasuk, Dachner and Loopstra’s study on food banks and welfare in Canada found that even though 70% of households dependent on social assistance were food insecure, a much smaller percentage actually used food banks. Reasons for not using food banks ranged from families not thinking they were appropriate for their needs, to facing logistical barriers (such as narrow hours of operation, lack of transportation, and line-ups). The researchers concluded that:
“…there is no indication that this ad hoc, donor-driven system of food relief is able to compensate for the chronic household budget deficits arising from fundamentally inadequate income assistance programs. Furthermore, there is nothing inherent in the design or delivery of charitable food assistance programs in Canada that suggests this 'system' is able to correct itself.”
Similar findings were included in a study that aimed to find out why people were not using community gardens and kitchens—they simply were not convenient, appropriate or close enough to people experiencing food insecurity.
In a Homeless Hub podcast, Dr. Tarasuk elaborated on her research on food bank use in Canada:
“They’re not uniformly available or accessible, but also food banks are fundamentally a culturally inappropriate response to this problem. In an affluent society like ours people aren’t comfortable seeking charity. To go to a place where you have to “out” your poverty and your extreme deprivation to total strangers, it’s just not something that I think a lot of people are prepared to do. They don’t identify with the solution, or not the solution, it’s not the solution. They don’t identify with that response.”
The value of dignity
What Tarasuk is touching on in her above response is how humiliating it can be to be seen as poor. During my first undergraduate degree I had to make use of the university food bank a few times and I can tell you, I did not go in with my head high. And when I left with Kraft Dinner and pumpkin pie filling—the two most appealing items in the whole place—it wasn’t any higher.
The Foods for Friends program offers some agency and dignity to card recipients, who get to choose what they want to buy and shop like everyone else. Shirley Merry, a resident of Woodstock and recipient of Foods for Friends, appears in a CBC video and an article from the Woodstock Sentinel Review commenting on the change the program has made in her life: “With food cards, we can go into grocery stores and get whatever we want and be able to shop with dignity…we deserve to shop where everybody else does.”
This is incredibly valuable, especially for people who have faced the stigma of poverty for a long time. But Food for Friends is designed as an emergency food service only: the denominations are small, first-time users and families get priority, and repeat use is discouraged. Part of what is needed is a committed, long-term vision of equal food access and poverty reduction in Canada (and worldwide).
Food as a human right
Olivier De Schutter from the United Nations has recommended implementing a “right to food” policy, which prioritizes core issues like supporting small-scale farming and providing incentives for agriculture. So far, policymakers and leaders in Canada have yet to really consider his proposal.
The state of food security in Canada, a wealthy nation, is dire. According to Tarasuk, Mitchell and Dachner’s report, Household Food Insecurity in Canada (2012), food security has only been measured since 2005 and inconsistently so amongst different provinces and territories. Their report used the latest available data to show that in 2012, nearly 13% of Canadian households experienced food insecurity—that’s 4 million people. More key findings include:
- 62% of respondents said they primarily relied on wages, salaries or self employment, while 16.1% reported relying on social assistance
- Highest rates of food insecurity were found in northern communities, especially in Nunavut
- Households led by an Aboriginal or black respondent were almost 2.5 times more likely to report having difficulty securing food
- Recent immigrants reported being food insecure at a higher rate (19.6%) than those who arrived more than five years ago (11.8%)
In First World Hunger Revisited, a chapter by Riches and Tarasuk highlights that despite thirty years of food charity in Canada, food insecurity rates seem to only be increasing. They argue that ultimately, food charity models only help those severely in need on an intermittent basis, and underscore De Schutter’s belief that, globally, access to food must be positioned as a human rights issue.
Power, Little and Collins shared this view in their study of the food stamp program—now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—in the United States. They found that like many other food charity models, food stamp programs reduce the agency of its participants and generate stigma. The authors conclude that the source of food insecurity is a lack of income, not a lack of food, writing: “…the most useful course of action for health promoters is continued advocacy for a reconstructed social safety net, one that ensures income security and effectively reduces poverty, the underlying cause of food insecurity.”
Moving towards long-term and alternative solutions
While new emergency models like Foods for Friends have the potential to improve our current food charity system, we need to go further. Given her experience in the area, I asked Dr. Tarasuk what her initial thoughts were about the shift from food banks towards grocery cards. We talked about the various eligibility requirements of food banks and how those tend to limit agency and access, but we also spent a lot of time discussing the real underlying problem of poverty. She told me:
“We know the primary reason people can’t put food on the table is because of low income. This is a step forward in that, but aren’t we just augmenting an inadequate welfare program through charity? The sheer volume of the problem [food insecurity] is troubling, as well as the tendency of these numbers to go up…A very large number of people are struggling to meet their food needs because of issues of affordability…to say it’s more dignified to give a food card means we don’t talk about this very problem.”
Some researchers have advocated for Canada to adopt a minimum income policy to resolve issues of food insecurity and poverty on a broader scale; and ultimately save Canada a lot in healthcare spending. Other proposed solutions are a bit more out-of-the-box, and depend heavily on context. Gloria Song, a Nunavut-based lawyer, writer and musician wrote for CBC that, along with connecting local and southern organizations and resources, one way to help solve food insecurity in Northern communities would be to support more traditional ways of finding food: hunting and fishing.
Solving food insecurity will involve creativity and time, and Foods for Friends is certainly a step forward, especially when it comes to equalizing access and preserving dignity. But let’s not stop there.
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