Putting hope on the table

Food Banks Canada just released its annual report. The numbers are not encouraging. More Canadians visited food banks this year than last year.

The report suggests that every month this year 852,137 people visited a food bank, up just over 1% from last year.

While this year’s number is lower than the 10-year high figure of 2013, when 872,379 Canadians were recorded using a food bank monthly, the report’s numbers indicate significant, troubling shifts in food bank use in the last 12 months. More than 80,000 Canadians used a food bank for support for the first time this year, on average, each month.

The report indicates that the number of children who visit food banks is just astounding. More than 36% of food bank users are children — 305,000 of them. That equals the combined number of people living in Cambridge, Kingston and Peterborough, visiting food banks every month. You can fill the Rogers Center six times with the number of children who visit food banks on a regular basis.

The economy has negatively affected many families this year. This is particularly true in Alberta where the number of food bank users increased by more than 23% this year alone. The severe and abrupt decline of the oil sector is has affected the well-being of both families and individuals.

Seniors are also visiting food banks. As most live with a fixed income many seniors find themselves forced to seek help at food banks, and their need seems to be growing. The Food Banks Canada report notes that more than 7% of food bank users own their homes. This is an indication that many seniors have experienced swift changes in their financial state of affairs. They have turned to food banks to seek help and go beyond the burden of private shame.

There are some pockets of good news in the Food Bank Canada report. Demand at food banks in Saskatchewan has remained flat since last year, while Ontario, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador actually saw the number of regular visitors decrease.

Despite the distressing numbers the Food Banks Canada’s report is a powerful reminder that food insecurity in Canada should become an open issue, not just a private one. Food is, for most of us, a private issue and food insecurity is inherently an issue of private suffering. This annual report allows Canadians to realize just how problematic domestic food insecurity is, and that public awareness is critical to helping those in need.

For years governments pretended food banks didn’t exist. Food banks were symbols of how social programs have let many Canadians down. Governments had hoped that food banks were a short-term solution to the complex and multi-faceted challenge of domestic food insecurity. The reality is that food insecurity in the industrialised world is an intricate problem. The acceptance of food banks’ economic role in society seems to be gaining some traction. Instead of trying to get rid of them efforts are now focussed on making food banks more efficient.

Food banks are evolving. They are becoming more than depots for warehousing food surpluses. They are providing food distribution and processing. In Europe, some food banks are now operating as not-for-profit social franchises. Imagine, franchises for food banks.

Obviously, food banks do not exist to generate a profit but they are very much part of our communities. Publicly funded job centres in some countries are now openly referring individuals to food banks, and this is something we could start witnessing in Canada soon. Food banks could serve a dual role — both as food distributors and as information nodes.

Whether the government is there to help families in need or not, food banks will remain as examples of market failure management. Food banks are the ‘paint’ that covers over the cracks in an imperfect social benefits system.

No government can get it right all the time in responding quickly to market failures. Food banks, in contrast, are inherently effective and responsive to market needs. Each food bank is unique in Canada due to differences in their available spaces, the number of clients served, and the ingenuity of the people who manage them. No government programs can replicate what food banks do on a daily basis.

Where the federal government can be most effective is in The North. The Northern Territories are highly vulnerable to higher food prices. The new Liberal government promised $40 million over four years to support a program called Nutrition North to keep food prices lower. A more efficient approach is to equally disburse funds among individuals and consumers who need affordable food products instead of just funnelling funds into the distribution system, which was the approach a few years ago.

Some may believe that we shouldn’t allow food banks to become permanent features of the Canadian landscape. It is thought that we ought to find ways of making sure they are used less often in the future. Perhaps, but food banks are miracles of the human spirit. They broker relationships between individuals who are willing to help their peers in desperate times. That in it of itself is a wonderful legacy.

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