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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2013/may/28/poverty-50-ways-to-close-a-food-bank-uk#ixzz2UhBDJgTh

Toronto high school students work to end local hunger on World Hunger Day.

By: Laurie Monsebraaten Social justice reporter, Published on Tue May 28 2013

For about 30 high school students who have never known a Canada without food banks, a Toronto forum to mark World Hunger Day served up food for thought — and action Tuesday.
Stories at the forum told by teachers, nurses, daycare workers and others who see hunger in the people they work with every day, “rang true,” said Lorelei Campbell, 18, a Grade 12 student at West End Alternative Secondary School student.

“Hearing from people who are experiencing hunger is good,” she said. “But sometimes they can’t tell their stories because it is embarrassing. That’s why advocacy is important.”
Yorkdale Secondary School student Christina Morrison said for most of her peers “poverty seems normal.”

“We see people begging on the streets and walk right by. We don’t bother to ask why,” she said.
Homeless shelters should provide more than a bed for the night, she suggested.

“They could provide resources to help people find a job and improve their lives so they don’t have to live on the streets.”

The daylong forum, organized by the Put Food in the Budget campaign, is part of a pilot for a larger high school initiative around poverty the group hopes to launch next fall.

Most of the discussion centred around the links between hunger and poverty.

More than 400,000 Ontarians use food banks every month because their meagre incomes are spent paying for rent and other fixed costs.

Food banks are now a staple on every Ontario university and college campus due to the high cost of tuition, noted York University graduate Alastair Woods, chairperson-elect of the Canadian Federation of Students – Ontario. Tuition in the province, which averages about $7,200 a year, is the highest in Canada, he added.

“People in Ontario now can literally be ‘hungry for life,’ ” said Sharon Norman, a person living in poverty and a member of the Put Food in the Budget campaign. The group has been pushing for increases to social assistance rates and the minimum wage for several years.

“We must act together to end poverty,” she told the students.

Yvonne Kelly of Social Planning York reminded the students that when she grew up in the 1970s there were no food banks in Canada.

“We need to change the conversation and begin to ask why they are so prevalent today,” she said. “You people have a real opportunity to make a change . . . We pass the torch to you.”

For students who may underestimate their power, Rexdale elementary teacher Nigel Barriffe reminded them that just last spring a Quebec student protest prompted a provincial election that defeated the ruling provincial Liberals.

“That’s what you guys can do,” he said.

Food Banks Hunger Count Report – Ontario

Ontario Association of Food Banks Hunger Count Report

From the 2012 survey results, the following has been determined:
•412,998 individuals accessed Ontario food banks in March 2012
•38.7% of food bank users, or 159,918 individuals, were children (11,737 more children than in March 2011)
•44.6 % of all food bank users were women over 18 years of age
•174,618 households were served by food banks (9.8% of which were first time users)
•42.8% of food bank users were on social assistance
•27.3% of food bank users were on disability support
•64.5% of food bank users were low-income, rental market tenants
•19.2% of food banks ran out of nutritious food during the month

What do these figures mean?

These figures tell us that an undeniably high number of people in Ontario live each and every day chronically hungry. What’s more, these numbers tell us that food bank use, in Ontario, is at an all time high. Far surpassing the statistical count of 2011, and even that of the 2008 recession (with 374,000 users), more individuals are seeking assistance from food banks than ever before. In the month of March alone, no less than 412,998 individuals accessed food banks, including over 17,190 households that accessed food banks for the first time in their lives.

There are a number of key factors that have contributed to this increase in need. Unemployment rates, rising food and housing costs, and cuts to government expenditures left many Ontarians falling short financially. Environmental anomalies have impacted jobs, and food supply, which will increase demand on food banks throughout the year. The spring’s warm weather and the frost that followed, coupled with the harsh, dry summer, left many rural communities and farmers’ fields empty or filled with ruined crops. Flooding in the north
uprooted entire communities, forcing some to leave their homes and others to have to pay for extensive damages with little means to do so.

All told, access to healthy foods — such as fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and dairy — has become increasingly difficult and more expensive.

Find full Ontario Report at: http://bit.ly/YxvM88