COVID-19 is revealing critical weaknesses in how we care for each other. While many Canadians are being thrown out of work and need emergency food assistance, food banks have had to shut down operations to deal with physical distancing requirements, reduce staffing as elderly volunteers stay home to self-isolate and ration food as donations decline.
The feel-good vibes of food drives might suggest that if we all just pitch in a little bit more, food banks could meet their goal of feeding all hungry Canadians. But decades of evidence convincingly shows food banks have never remedied the inadequate or insecure access to food faced by Canadians, whether in booming economic times or faltering ones.
There are thousands of food banks and affiliated agencies in Canada. Businesses and individuals donate millions of dollars, millions of pounds of non-perishable food and millions of hours of volunteers’ labour.
Yet rates of food insecurity in Canada are shockingly high and rising. The latest statistics from 2017-18 estimate that more than 4.4 million Canadians and one in six households with children worried about what to eat or reduced the quality or quantity of food they ate because of lack of money.
These numbers are higher than ever and we have no idea how much higher food insecurity rates will climb in the next few months as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Lack quantity and variety
Even before COVID-19, only about a quarter of those who meet the objective criteria of food insecurity ever went to a food bank. Many neighbourhoods don’t have an accessible food bank or one with convenient hours. Food banks seldom have the quantity or variety of foods that people need for dietary and health needs or because of religious or personal reasons.
And even when food bank staff or volunteers are kind and caring, the experience of going to a food bank is inherently stigmatizing. This means many would rather go hungry than accept charity.
Food banks are simply unable to address the core reason that too many people don’t have enough food — poverty. Nearly all food bank clients report experiencing severe food insecurity, which means skipping meals, losing weight or potentially going for entire days without eating.
Given all we know about the insufficiency of food banks, it’s distressing to see governments promoting them as a means to address food insecurity.
Charity isn’t the solution
In late March, Premier François Legault told Québecers not to be ashamed to go to the food bank to get what they need. “It’s not your fault if you lost your job,” he said.
While this is true — no one should feel embarrassed for needing help — we should all be ashamed that government officials would point to food banks as the solution for deficiencies in government income supports.
The government of British Columbia then announced $3 million for the province’s struggling food banks “to help ensure that people continue to have access to the food they need.” And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared the federal government would invest $100 million for food banks and similar organizations so that “vulnerable Canadians can get the food they need, when they need it most.”
Let’s be clear: food banks have never been where Canadians can get the food they need.
For almost 40 years, governments of all political stripes have called on food banks to address food needs instead of developing meaningful policy solutions to reduce poverty. During the coronavirus crisis, politicians have thrown the frayed rope of charity instead of a strong lifeline to a robust social safety net.
People need sufficient income
Contrary to what our politicians are telling us, food banks have never — and cannot — adequately address food insecurity. Struggling Canadians need sufficient income to feed themselves now and in the post-pandemic future.
If we are “all in this together,” as politicians keep reminding us, perhaps new food bank users will join food bank veterans and other Canadians to demand that our governments provide a real safety net. This would include a basic income that would allow all of us to meet the material necessities of life.
The best sign of a successful national response to the food insecurity crisis is that food banks will finally close after 40 years — not because of lack of food or physical distancing rules, but lack of demand.
Elaine Power, Associate Professor in Health Studies, Queen's University, Ontario; Jennifer Black, Associate Professor of Food, Nutrition and Health, University of British Columbia, and Jennifer Brady, Assistant Professor, Applied Human Nutrition, Mount Saint Vincent University