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?


  1. I sometimes think that landlord's are getting away with charging high rents because food banks help people survive. A tough question indeed.

  2. Oh I'm so impressed that you are doing something so wonderful to help out! I give to foodbanks every year and despite reading both sides of the story will continue to do so....and be thankful I don't need it!

  3. Rebecca, our family too will be supporting food banks as we do all year long, both within our own community and the lower mainland. I have been following the Adopt-A-School program that is regularly featured in the Vancouver Sun. I believe this is a parallel situation that reflects the growing need of families everywhere. What has our society come to when schools need to be "adopted" to be able to support the families within their school communities? Some would argue that schools need not take on this role but if they don't, who will? The Vancouver Sun has kept inner city schools as its focus but we all know there are "inner-city schools" in the country as well. It surely is time for society as a whole to reflect and act on the growing disparity that spawned the "occupy" movement. As always, your words are food for thought and then, hopefully, action!

  4. i think they do fill a gap...and play a role...if we want government to change i think there are better ways than starving our own people....good on you for coordinating as well...

  5. You are doing a great job indeed. People in this country are lucky to have you, otherwise human dignity and both emotional and physical health would be in danger. If it was not for people like you what would people like me do to help out, because as much as we want to help it is very hard to check which one of our neighbours is hungary as people are shy to ask. Keep up the good job. GOD BLESS YOU !

  6. Rebecca, there is a great video through RSA on the issues that arise with charity. I always like the $100 plate dinner in which $20 goes to charity... Is it still selfless if you get something in return? Will try to find the vid for you.

    Interesting post!

  7. Great post Rebecca! I caught some of that program, too, and it really got me thinking. Of course, we'll still donate but it's certainly time for change.

  8. It's a world wide issue - Over here the Govt is promoting 'The Big Society' where communities get together to volunteer to provide services and supports. While I applaud people taking responsibility personally and socially for the society we live in - heck I volunteer myself - I think it's an indictment on modern society that this HAS to be done to provide a basic level of care instead of being the icing on the cake that makes a basic level something much more worthwhile.

    I agree with the professor that while communities are doing this govts will accept that they do not need to address this issue - either fully, or at all - and these people will become even more marginalised and ignored and the expectation will simply be that society will give more. While that may work in the short or medium term, ultimately it's unsustainable.

    Of course perhaps by that time world leaders will possibly have manufactured a war to help resolve the problem.

    {Cynical me}

  9. Ha, I had to pull the box bigger before I began.

    To my mind there is an inherent danger following the prof's argument and it is basically this. If you take his position then it is too easy to nudge the entire debate to one of no social protection at all. This has happened in the UK right at this moment where the Tory's have taken as policy the do-gooding hobbies of their bored wives and are touting a third way rubbish where the 'poor' are provided for with uncertain donations.
    If you take a hard line with Aid to the so called third world like I do. Confining my input to micro loans and disaster reliefs. This is one thing, but to shift this to home brings things back to a Poor Law situation where the poor are seen as synonymous with criminal. Or to put it in Canadian terms, someone from the maritime provinces other than PEI. There was a time when the central cities were very hard on those that moved after the fishing season.
    Of course, you can have a situation of the 'deserving poor', as distinct from the indigent poor.
    Anyhooooos, keep up the good work.

  10. I never thought about eliminating or decreasing food banks; possibly because I haven't heard a debate such as the one you heard.

    My initial thought after reading this is that it's good to have food banks even though it represents a huge problem - too much poverty and lack of jobs, leadership, and whatever else is needed to get people employed.

    During my whole life, I've heard many debates on welfare and agree with half of what's been said about it, i.e. that people are milking the system, etc. Are people in food lines taking advantage of "free food." Perhaps I am naive, but I think most need to be there, and that those of us who are well fed, should share.

    I think the root of the problem needs to be addressed and dealt with. I've known many people who just don't know how to hold a job and how to budget their money. If today's youth can be taught from a very early age to take pride in what they do for a living and how to handle money, maybe the next generation will be better at avoiding some of the mistakes their parents and grandparents have made in life. All of this is speaking generally, of course. Everyone has a different story.

    Thought provoking post Rebecca.

  11. Here is the video I mentioned... worth the 10 mins

    renowned philosopher Slavoj Zizek investigates the surprising ethical implications of charitable giving.

    RSA Animate - First as Tragedy, Then as Farce - YouTube

  12. Thanks for all your thoughts, everyone! Lots of food for thought. I was in Vancouver on Friday with my husband and youngest daughter. We went to a market across from the CBC building where the big Food Bank Drive was going on. There were protesters outside chanting, "We want justice, not charity." And thanks for the link Chris, I will take a look!

  13. Rebecca! Good points all...I am QUITE sure we are in the same predicament here in the US. Your words are food for thought most certainly.

  14. Excellent blog entry, Rebecca! This should get a wider range of exposure because the point you've made is very thought-provoking.


  15. Chris: That was an interesting video. Thanks for sharing it. Wow!

    Jill: Oh, I know most of the western world is in this same predicament, but I can only speak from direct experience to be credible :)

    Sheena: Thanks! This post has gained me a huge number of views over the past few days.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!