In the media
Too many food banks serve up little more than poor-quality food and shame when they could offer those on low-incomes a chance to take control of their lives and what they eat.
Read the article on The Guardian's website.
In 1998, when I took over The Stop, a small, under-resourced food bank in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto, it was like hundreds of other makeshift, church-basement charities popping up across the country. Lineups wound out the door. When you got to the front, you were handed a hamper of largely unhealthy processed food – corporate castoffs – intended to last a few days. It was a place where people kept their eyes on the floor and checked their dignity at the door.
With many of the same people returning regularly – plus new recipients daily – it didn't take long to realise the food bank was doing little to stem the tide of need. And the fatty, sugary and salt–laden food was a health crisis on a plate. Even with the handouts, people still went hungry, took on debt to pay for food, and were forced to make impossible choices between paying their rent and feeding their kids.
Charitable food banks, it turns out, are good for the corporate food donors who save on dumping fees and cultivate social capital; well-meaning volunteers who feel good about helping the "needy"; politicians who point to them as evidence the problem is being dealt with – everyone, except the people they were set up to help.
In our community, we didn't buy the rhetoric that there was no better alternative for those who fall through the cracks of our country's fraying social safety net. So we created programmes at The Stop that meet people's immediate food needs, but also allow them to be active participants in their own lives and neighbourhoods.
We built a community food centre with shared gardens, community kitchens and dining; nutrition initiatives for low-income, pregnant women; after-school workshops for children; and affordable, fresh market stands. No longer passive recipients of food handouts, our community members welcomed the opportunity to become gardeners, cooks and engaged citizens, and to advocate for themselves and their neighbours on issues relevant to their lives, such as affordable housing, increased minimum wages and adequate social assistance rates. Of course, there's been resistance, not least from food banks themselves, which are closely tied to their corporate partners, unable or unwilling to question the unhealthy donated food for fear of biting the hand that feeds them. But at the community food centre, we're forging an entirely different relationship with the food system. Here, we see food as a tool to build health, community, greater equity and hope. We've created allies in the farming, restaurant, gardening, middle-class foodie and social justice worlds, and, instead of applying a new plaster every day, we're building organisations that reflect the healthy, dignified, inclusive future we want to see.
I've been watching Britain's proliferation of food banks with growing concern over the last year. I know firsthand it's not easy to put the genie back in the bottle. But here in Canada, we've seen how quickly food banks can become institutionalised and how little long-term impact they have had on hunger and poverty. Indeed, by making people think the problem is dealt with – the hungry fed – they let us and our governments off the hook for finding real economic and social policy–based solutions to this growing problem.
There is a better way. Instead of stigmatising and dividing us as citizens, let's use food as an agent of change.
— Nick Saul