December 1, 2011
The Food Bank: Friend or Foe?
So, there I was setting up a food bank drive for our church's after-school program, and feeling good about it. I asked the children to each bring an item to add to the basket each week during Advent, and on the last day we would bring the food down to the Community Services office and probably receive a thank-you card in the mail which we would put up on the bulletin board after Christmas as proof of our good deed done. Just a few days before we were to begin the food bank drive I heard on CBC radio a single mother of two special needs boys talk about her use of the food bank to help make ends meet. Tears rolling down my face, I felt deep in my soul the unfairness of her predicament. She was on government disability, she worked four days a week at a part time job. She had only three mouths to feed, and still, she could not make it without help from the food bank. Something was wrong with this picture, but I was determined to help people like her through our small effort at the church.
Then, on Monday, on the way home from shopping, my husband and I listened to the noon-hour call-in show on the radio. CBC Vancouver is gearing up for their full day broadcast of their food bank drive where they have been raising over one million dollars annually for the province's food banks. Interestingly, they had two sides represented for the show: one, a food bank coordinator who was obviously for food banks, the need for which she witnessed on a daily basis, and one against. Against? I thought. Who could possibly be against food banks? They help feed families. They are necessary in our society today....or is that the problem? A social work professor from the University of British Columbia thinks so.
The social work professor raised several key points when he spoke out against food banks. Apparently, food banks in Canada were started during the 1980's recession to help families temporarily. Back then, experts predicted we would only see them for three years, and then they would be gone. Well, obviously they haven't gone anywhere. In fact, the need for them has only increased, exponentially. Every community I know of has a food bank, and every year, around Christmas, we are asked to donate cereals at our elementary school, canned goods at various public events, and non-perishable items at church. Gardeners routinely and increasingly 'grow a row' to feed needy families in their communities, and every time we go shopping, we are given the opportunity to throw a few items in the food bank bin at the exit, or add two dollars to our grocery bill for the food bank. Donating to the food bank has become the norm, and still, the need grows, and grows like P.D. Eastman's goldfish.
So why is giving to the food bank a problem? The professor admitted that there is nothing wrong with the act of giving to the food bank, the gesture of generosity. He said the problem is in the need for food banks at all in a wealthy country like ours, and that food banks take the pressure off government to do something real about the increasing gap between the haves and the have nots. It occurred to me last night that the poor can no longer afford to be poor. Back in the 80's in my hometown, students, artists, single parents and the like could rent a decent apartment for about one third of their income and have the rest to buy necessities like clothing, bus passes, and, of course, food. Low income people could live with relative dignity. They may not own a car, but they didn't have to queue up in a bread line either, taking handouts of foods they did not choose for themselves. These days in my hometown, a young person working in the service industry is lucky to find an apartment for less than seventy-five percent of their income, and I'm not kidding. Sure, there is some low-income housing, but it has waiting lists. The same is true for many communities and cities across Canada. Incomes are staying stable and the cost of living just keeps on rising. Food banks, the professor argued are just a band-aid solution that masks the real problem, and perhaps it is time to rip off the band-aid and expose the wounded society for what it really is.
Am I about to pull the plug on my food bank drive? No, the present need is just too great in our town. However, I have begun to think that perhaps it is time for a different, big picture approach to the problem which food banks try to address. Other people think so too - I heard another professor speak out against the concept of food banks on another CBC broadcast for many of the same reasons as the first. I also think, perhaps selfishly, as a person who chairs the board of an arts organization, that if the volunteer base of our society is increasingly needed to address basic issues such as homelessness, despair, and hunger so shockingly prevalent in our communities, then the chance of gaining volunteers for an organization like ours, which aims to lift a theoretically wealthy society out of its increasingly Philistine pursuits will prove more and more difficult. And where will Canada be then?