The power of food – Food banks evolve into community centres inspiring social change


They don’t work.

By simply handing out emergency hampers of donated food and sending people on their way, food banks to do little to solve or even address the profound problems of hunger or poverty, say veterans of these community organizations.

“In a way, giving out food is a bit of a black hole,” said Kimberly Martin, executive director of the NDG Food Depot.

“A Band-Aid solution,” said Nick Saul. When he took over as executive director of a Toronto food bank known as The Stop in 1998, it was a cramped and dreary space focused on what he called “a single demoralizing transaction”: handouts of food hampers featuring tired produce, overly salty canned goods and mislabelled food industry castoffs.

But on his 14-year watch, The Stop became something else entirely. It expanded to include among its services a garden, communal dining and cooking initiatives, a health and nutrition group for low-income pregnant women, breakfast and lunch drop-ins, education programs for children and civic engagement projects.

It went from being about service delivery to being about community and social change, as he and Andrea Curtis observe in The Stop: How the Fight For Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (Random House Canada, 2013), a deeply human and inspiring story.

“Food is this powerful way to connect with people,” Saul said in an interview. “In eating with others, you can build community and you can express your background and culture. It’s a good way to do community organizing, a good way to get at big issues.”

The Stop has come “a long way from when we offered members wilted iceberg lettuce,” he writes. “The Stop is truly a place where people come to cook, grow, eat, learn about and advocate for good food.”

When Saul started, it had a staff of five and a $200,000 budget. When he left in 2012, there was a staff of 40 in place, a budget of $4.5 million and 300 volunteers.

Saul’s work now is to try to replicate the innovation he brought to The Stop in other Canadian communities. Since last summer, he has been president and CEO of a new organization known as Community Food Centres Canada; the hope is to create a national movement in which food banks are replaced by community food centres.

Food banks, which became widespread during the economic recession of the early 1980s, were intended as a stopgap measure, Saul explained. But they’re still here.

And people are still hungry.

“Food bank use continues to rise dramatically. And hundreds of thousands of people — including many children — in towns and cities across the continent report that they don’t know where their next meal will come from,” he writes. (Although Saul and Curtis, an award-winning writer and editor, wrote the book together, the book is written in his voice.)

“Indeed, instead of regarding food banks as the embodiment of a good deed — a compassionate response to hunger in an affluent society — I think we should view these small, ephemeral, volunteer-run places serving up inadequate, unhealthy food as symbols of the breakdown of our social fabric, the end of whatever collective understanding we have about our responsibility to each other.”

More people are paying more attention these days to what they are eating; television chefs are rock stars. But as in other areas, a class divide endures.

“The rich and middle class get organic — and the poor get diabetes,” Saul said. There is proportionately more diabetes and heart disease in low-income communities, he said.

“If we agree that good food is best, we have to figure out a way to ensure that everyone has access to it. We are trying to view food less as a commodity and more as a public good.”

The Stop still operates a food bank, but “it’s only one in a complete roster of food programs, all aimed at meeting people where they’re at and also working toward larger political and social change,” he writes. “This marriage of advocacy with community-driven programs makes us very different.”

To test whether the model of the community food centre “had legs,” two pilot projects were established in Stratford and Perth. Other community food centres are slated to open this year and next — in the Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto, in Dartmouth and in Winnipeg. The hope is to open three centres a year for the next five years, for a total of 15.

More than half of a $20-million fundraising goal has been reached, with funders including the Sprott Foundation, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the Metcalfe Foundation, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ontario’s Trillum Foundation, BMO, Greenshields Canada and the Borden Ladner Gervais law firm. Le Creuset Canada has agreed to equip the future kitchens with cookware.

To be considered as a community food centre, an organization must already be a strong presence in the community, Saul explained. The role of Community Food Centres Canada is to nurture prospective partners and help them.

The centres feature what he described as three “buckets” of programs: a dignified emergency or healthy food program, such as a drop-in meal program; a food skills component, such as a community garden, a kitchen and after-school programs; an engagement and education component, such as community action groups and peer advocacy to support people as they speak out.

“It’s to get to systemic change,” he said. “The vehicle is a good meal, but the underlying question is ‘Why are these people marginal?’”

The NDG Food Depot would like to become part of the Community Food Centre network; although the door is open to a collaboration, “there are a lot of components to get into place first, before we are eligible,” director Martin said.

One is to find a space of its own — in NDG. With a kitchen. And access to green space.

“We are big believers that the physical drives the social,” Saul said. It is important, he said, that these community food centres be “dignified spaces that aren’t in basements with flickering fluorescent lights.”

The NDG Food depot “has its momentum and it knows what it is doing,” said Saul, who has had conversations over the years with the directors of the NDG Food Depot. “I hope they would say I have been a helpful voice.

“We are supportive of their work. With our expertise, supporting them with program systems, the model and fundraising, and with their long-standing trusting relationships, there is a possibility for doing something really interesting.”

Focus groups are being held with clients, so that decisions can be made based on the needs of the people who actually use the food depot.

It’s about “creating programming and shifting things based on what they are saying,” Martin said. “We want to do more relationship building, community building and work around sustainability.”

But sometimes life gets in the way of the best-laid plans. The NDG Food Depot has had to move twice in the past six months, the first time with two weeks’ notice from a rented space at Oxford Ave. and de Maisonneuve Blvd. it had occupied for 20 years. It recently signed a one-year lease in the basement of Trinity Memorial Church on Marlowe Ave. below Sherbrooke St., as the search continues for a permanent location.

Participation in the cooking program, which began in 2009, has dropped — not surprising considering the two moves — but is being rebuilt.

“We want people to stay and share a meal together,” Martin said. “Ideally, it would be a meal cooked by a group. We are going to start with volunteers cooking and inviting people who are here for baskets to come in for a meal.”

Users have suggested that one way of helping to create community could be with cooking classes based on the cuisine of cultural communities whose members use the depot.

There are always people who need emergency food, but over the past few years, there has been a shift away from the organization operating almost exclusively as a food bank, Martin said.

Used to be, people would just come in for their food baskets and leave, said development director Bonnie Soutar. “Now we ask them, ‘How else can we help you?’”

People struggle with issues from loneliness to mental health difficulties as they struggle to live on impossibly low income, she said. Half the clients receive social assistance. Many are socially isolated. Some are new to the country. Some speak no French. Some are older adults without up-to-date skills.

“We try to work with people one to one,” Soutar said. “It is how we are dealing with hunger and poverty.”

For more on Community Food Centres Canada,

The NDG Food Depot is at 2146 Marlowe Ave.,

Hunger is toxic for those living through it – HungerCount Report 2012

Hunger Count 2012: a comprehensive report on hunger and food bank use in Canada, and recommendations for change.

We posted the earlier report for Ontario and this additional report provides a summary across Canada and key recommendations.

In Rural Ontario

  • 42% people accessing food banks are women followed by 17.1% aboriginal persons
  • 39.7 % are single people and 23.8% are two-parent families
  • 39.3 are on social assistance and 33.6 on disability-related income support; 10.8% are wage earners
  • 67.3 are rental market tenants and 15.2% are social housing tenants

The key factor at the root of the need for food banks is low income, whether in the short or long term. People asking for help are working in low-paying jobs, receiving meagre social assistance benefits, managing on inadequate pensions.

They face rising costs related to food, housing, and energy. In the current economy, they are worried that things are not going to get better.

These issues have a deep impact. Hunger is toxic for those living through it, and it is harmful to Canada as a whole. It reduces the economic contributions of individuals, and increases costs related to health care and social services. To address it, we need to be smarter about helping people become more self-sufficient, and we need to be more supportive of those who need help over the longer term.

HungerCount offers 5 key recommendations:

1. Increase federal investment in affordable housing, so that people are not forced to choose between paying rent or buying food.

2. Establish a Northern Food Security Innovation Fund, comprehensive territorial school breakfast programs, and new community infrastructure, to help address the incredibly high levels of household food insecurity in the territories.

3. Improve the Guaranteed Income Supplement so that no senior falls below the poverty line.

4. At the provincial government level, make significant changes to social assistance, so that the program helps people to live with dignity and get back on their feet.

5. Increase the value, and broaden eligibility for the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB), and increase investment in education and training for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed people in Canada who are not able to access Employment Insurance benefits.


Put Food in the Budget campaign – World Hunger Day on Tuesday May 28

May 31, 2013

The Put Food in the Budget campaign organized a unique event to recognize World Hunger Day on Tuesday May 28.

The Put Food in the Budget campaign has learned over the course of our campaign that hundreds of thousands of people are hungry at every stage of life in Ontario because their income is too low. They don’t have enough money to pay the rent and buy food.

Front line workers from public service unions and student, worker and volunteer associations told an audience of high school students about people they serve that do not have enough income to provide nutritious food to their families.

The over-riding message from these stories is that people in Ontario now can literally be ‘Hungry for Life’. ‘Hungry for life’ has two meanings. Young people in high school are on the brink of beginning their adult lives. We all want our young people to thrive and to be hopeful about the future. We want them to be ‘hungry for life’ – we don’t want them to feel hopeless or to fear the future. In workshops this afternoon we will talk about the reality of poverty in Ontario, and talk about how together we might ‘unveil opportunities for hope’.

Diego, a student in the audience, responded to the panel’s presentation by saying ‘We all need to eat, food is a human right.’

The Ontario government does not have a serious strategy to end poverty in Ontario. The proposed welfare reforms in the recent Ontario budget are neither fundamental nor far-reaching as some would have us believe. The current rates for social assistance and the current minimum wage in Ontario ensure that people in Ontario with low incomes will continue to starve.

Premier Wynne’s proposed welfare reforms are inadequate. Premier Wynne must

‘Put Food in the Budget’ by raising social assistance rates and raising the minimum wage to ensure people have enough money to buy healthy food without relying on food banks.


The Toronto Star published two articles on the Put Food in the Budget event.

You can read them here.

Toronto students learn local connection with World Hunger Day –

Toronto high school students get lesson in the politics of hunger


Poverty: 50 ways to close a food bank

As food banks struggle to cope with rising demand, they – and politicians – could learn valuable lessons from volunteers in Canada about the precarious nature of charity food provision.

 For years they have been volunteers at the local food banks. And they’ve had enough.

In fact, though they express themselves politely, they are furious. Alf Judd, the director of operations at Georgina Community Food Pantry, explained their frustration:

“I began volunteering with the food bank in 1990 thinking I would do this for a couple of years; here I am 22 years later.”

The Sudbury volunteers’ clever adaptation of the Paul Simon song 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, is part of a campaign – Freedom 90 – to make obsolete the charity food banks they themselves helped to create and sustain. Many are in their sixties and seventies; their explicit aim is to “retire” from food crisis volunteering before they reach the age of 90.

Its an unexpected campaign – older people, prosperous pillars of civil society, not obvious radicals – that has prompted the kind of bemused, if slightly patronising, press write-up that asks:


What if the little old ladies who run the neighborhood church food pantry rebelled?


But they are deadly serious, and have two serious demands: that social assistance and minimum wage levels are sufficient for everyone to have adequate housing and to buy their own food; and that government takes meaningful action to end povertyand make food banks unnecessary.

What they calls the “food bank scenario” is, they argue, unjust, undignified and unsustainable as a way of meeting the most basic needs of individuals and families, especially in their own, relatively wealthy province of Ontario.

They don’t want to shut down food banks – at least not immediately – they just want to make them unnecessary. Food banks, they argue (from bitter experience) don’t solve poverty; they don’t address food insecurity (only 20% of people in poverty who need food use food banks). They are stigmatising, and inefficient. Charity does not have unlimited capacity, they have found; and as demand for emergency food grows, there are physical and emotional limits to the amount of food bank volunteering they can do:


They [food bank volunteers] are helping in one of the only ways they know how but it is a job without an end and when times are tough, the stress and burden of feeling responsible for whether or not families have enough food to survive has simply become too much for many of our volunteers to bear.


This week I wrote about food banks in the UKstruggling to meet rising demand. That is an experience something Freedom 90 could tell them about. Canada has had food banks since the 1990s, (there are now thousands, and 900,000 people access them each month) and three decades on they still face the same underlying challenges.

According to Canadian academic Elaine Power, writing in Food Ethics Journal, in December 2011:


The 2010 Hunger Report, an annual report issued by the national association of food banks, Food Banks Canada, reports that 35% of food banks across the country ran out of food and 50% cut back on quantities because of rising demand – a 28% increase from 2008 to 2010 – and inadequate supply.


Power describes how the pioneer Canadian food bankers fervently believed their role was temporary, and that food banks would quickly close once the economy picked up. But even when things did pick up, food banks expanded: they invested in headquarters and equipment, hired full time staff, ran glossy marketing campaigns to publicise food drives, and accepted corporate sponsors.

The result, says Power, is that food banks:


…have become an integral part of our social safety net


That is precisely what is in danger of happening in the UK. Food banks are not merely proliferating, but are now co-opted into the fringes of the welfare state: following the abolition of the social fund, some local authorities give them grants in return for them playing a formal part in local welfare crisis provision. The Department for Work and Pensions issues food bank vouchers to claimants through job centres. Delays in processing benefit claims (up to eight weeks, one food banker told me this week), and increasing incidence of benefit sanctions, mean the state is leaning ever more heavily on voluntary food banks to help people who it excludes or fails.

Even the Trussell trust, an impressive UK food bank network whose operating model explicitly attempts to design out many of food banks’ structural flaws, is feeling the strain. What started as a community-based ideal – local food for local people – is becoming regionalised. Some food banks collect more food than others, and surplus produce must be shipped from one bank to another. Logistics is becoming a key operational issue. Trussell’s executive chairman, Chris Mould, told me he was actively talking to haulage companies about how – in an act of corporate generosity – they might help it move tonnes of donated food around its foodbank networks. It has joined forces with the supermarket giant, Tesco, for a series of heavily promoted food collection days, major events that are vital to replenish shrinking food bank stocks, especially outside the “harvest festival” Autumn period, when public donations are strongest.

Perhaps most tellingly, the self-imposed rules – a maximum of three vouchers in a 12 month period for each applicant – designed to prevent client dependency and ensure food banks remain an emergency service, are under strain. Food bankers told me this week that as welfare cuts like the bedroom tax began to hurt family incomes, they were increasingly worried that more food bank clients were not just needing a food parcel “to tide them over” but were trapped in a more permanent state of impoverishment. Food banks were simply not equipped to deal with this level of sustained poverty, but as local support and advice services were cut back to the bone, it was not always clear to which official agency they could “signpost” these clients once the three vouchers were used up.

Food bankers told me stories this week that were moving and inspirational: their spirit, generosity and ingenuity is a sign of the voluntary sector‘s vitality and compassion. But the UK’s nascent food banks face some fundamental questions. Canada’s experience tells us that food banks don’t “solve” food poverty, however hard they try. At what point do they stop peddling ever faster in an attempt to fill the gap left by the welfare state? And how do they ensure that their immense, positive energies stay focused on social justice, rather than road haulage timetables?

Read the full article by Patrick Butler at: