New questions, new concerns

June 2, 2010 at 2:17 pm 8 comments

I have little doubt that the “Week in Their Kitchen” experience would vary significantly across the country. Wouldn’t it be interesting if next year, several bloggers from several food banks (in urban and rural regions) took the same challenge? This type of awareness campaign has only been done twice in North America – two months ago in Toronto, and right now in Calgary. Even the two blogs reveal huge differences between the hamper contents. Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis struggled to make a 3-day hamper last through the week. Other participants stretched peanut butter with flour and water.

In Calgary, there’s no way I’ll go through all my peanut butter, let alone have to skimp or make it stretch. There’s also no way I’ll run out of food.

So two of my concerns are that followers of this blog will:

A) conclude that there isn’t a problem here that needs fixing


B) assume that because the Calgary Food Bank provides a sizeable quantity of food with some meat, some veggies and some other extras, that the situation is the same across all Canadian food banks. It isn’t. Even in Calgary, the selection varies daily because it is subject to whatever is available by donations.

The “Do the Math” campaign in Toronto, organized by The Stop, was about raising awareness about the inadequacy of social assistance in Ontario. Welfare, employment insurance, disability, old age security, minimum wage – none of them provide a living wage, and thus, citizens must resort to short-term, ‘band-aid’ solutions to make ends meet, or nearly meet. These short-term, band-aid solutions include clothing programs, community meal programs and food banks. “Do the Math” helps illustrate the hoops that low income Torontonians have to jump through.

So what’s wrong with the charitable approach?

The charitable approach is a short-term approach, but food programs have become industrialized and institutionalized. Food Banks in Alberta (and Canada for the matter) were supposed to be temporary fixes for the economic downturn in 1980s – but they are still here; more of them, and they are bigger and very sophisticated (huge refrigerators and freezers, trucks, forklifts, warehouses, hundreds of volunteers etc). One of the problems with the charitable approach is the risk that we divest ourselves of the responsibility to pursue more sustainable solutions to food insecurity (such as a living wage). We also run the risk, in celebrating the pounds of food raised or other accomplishments of the Food Bank, of minimizing the problem, and giving the impression that hunger and food security are not serious problems in Canada that require structural, not topical, solutions.

Many of my fellow bloggers have alluded to the lack of choice in their hampers, produce that is less than fresh, the misch-masch nature of the hamper contents, and the questionable nutritional value of many of the ‘donated’ items. I admire the work of the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank and support the critical service they offer Calgarians – especially in times like these. But this is emergency food, and a better solution would mean that Calgarians don’t have to line up for food, qualify for a hamper or figure out what to do with the somewhat random contents of their hamper. A better solution would be a living wage that would allow low income Calgarians to budget on their own, shop in a regular grocery store, and prepare foods that are culturally appropriate, nutritionally balanced, and suited to their liking.

This week, I am reliant on 1) the donations of food and money to the food bank; and, 2) the donation of time on the part of the Food Bank’s 100 daily volunteers. There is an uncomfortable dynamic of power that is set up here. In a charitable approach, the “giver” has more power and agency than the “receiver.” The “provider” controls what s/he gives – time, money, tuna, cookies etc. The “recipient” has a much more passive role and has little choice in what they receive. As a ‘client’ – I walk into the Food Bank and don’t want to be recognized. In my privileged life and as a frequent champion of food drives and other programs to raise funds for the Food Bank, I want to be recognized – so we blog, we take pictures, and we write press releases hoping that someone will pick up our good news. As a ‘client’ I am subject to the whims of the ‘donor’ (of time or money or food). Meaning, I will eat, or try to eat, what has been donated to the Food Bank. I give up some of my own agency – some of my choices are made for me by others.

Susan Learoyd, cited in Jean Swanson’s Poor Bashing: The Politics of Inclusion, warns “[charity] is a visible way of making people feel good about a problem, but not really addressing it in any depth. It doesn’t address the issue of why the person is poor [or hungry!] It doesn’t address jobs. It doesn’t address income levels” (Swanson, 2001: 138)

Of course – I feel good that I am participating in this campaign. I feel like I’m learning and I’m contributing. I also feel proud when my students present a cheque to the Food Bank or Brown Bagging it for Kids. But I do this work because I want to get to the next step, and I want my students to get to the next step too. If emergency food is step one, then capacity building is step two (community gardens, community kitchen programs, Good Food Box programs…), but the ultimate step is structural and policy change – addressing the root cause of hunger in Canada (poverty and inadequate social assistance rates). Only when this step is addressed will we see declining usage of our food banks, and ultimately the closing of our nation’s food banks and higher rates of food security.


Entry filed under: Calgary Food Bank, Erin.

Tim and Leah, Day 2 – Lunch & Dinner Feeling empty in the fruit bowl.

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sarah  |  June 2, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I will DEFINITELY do this challenge with you ? next year – I live in Ottawa & have had to rely on OW/food bank hampers in the past. So yeah – if you need volunteers from Ottawa, I know of a few people. What if you did this project nationally?!

  • 2. Erin  |  June 2, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Sarah. Thanks for commenting. I previously worked in Ottawa and grew up in the Ottawa area. I unfortunately don’t know any of the staff at the Food Bank there (but do have some contacts with the Parkdale United Church/Saturday meal program) – but I’m sure the Calgary Food Bank could make the connection – and I bet the Stop in Toronto might be interested. I would love to see this go national – I think there is so much variance between what different food banks offer – and I think we can use social media to demonstrate that this is a national problem.

    • 3. James  |  June 3, 2010 at 4:02 pm

      In Ottawa contact Peter Tilley, he is the Executive Director of the Ottawa Food Bank.

      • 4. armikaipainen  |  June 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm

        Thanks, James. I’ve never met him, but the name is definitely familiar. I did meet one of their staff members at a volunteer appreciation pot-luck for the Parkdale United Church’s In From the Cold program.

  • 5. Emily  |  June 2, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    The “Do The Math” blog is really interesting, and comparing the size of the hampers in Calgary to those in Toronto, they seemed to (so far) have a deeper experience of the impact of hunger in their daily lives. It shows food taken down to its most basic level – beyond likes/dislikes, chosen or not dietary restrictions, etc., to simple fuel. Thanks for posting the link to it.

  • 6. Erica B.  |  June 2, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Just as every client is different, every Food Bank is different. I volunteered on the production line at the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank for awhile – and I now live in Central Alberta and I see big differences. The Sylvan Lake Food Bank that runs just once a week out of a church basement – they are a dedicated group and making the most of their resources but the community is having to support hungry individuals and families through other programs. Then there is the CIFB who has a small army of very passionate staff, and a group of dedicated volunteers working flat out every day of the week supporting not only those within Calgary but a number of other food banks and programs throughout the province.

    Sure it would be better for society not to need Food Banks, and I’m hopeful we’ll see it one day. Food Banks do serve their purpose – are they perfect? No. Is the food perfect? No. But if it were me – who was facing the possibility of my children going without a meal I’d want the Food Bank to be there.

    What can we do about need?

    1. Donate cash, food banks have better buying power than you or I.

    2. Donate food (not junk food) that you’d eat. NOT the shortbread mix from last Christmas, the open bottle of ketchup or the expired tin of oysters someone forgot at the back of the pantry.

    3. If you can’t donate money or food or want to do more – and see the need first hand – Volunteer.

    4. If you have the time and the talent and truly want to give these people a hand up – organize a class in a local church kitchen or community centre and teach them how to garden – even container gardens produce real food – and teach them the skills required to shop smart and make most of what they have.

  • 7. Erin  |  June 2, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks for this, Erica. I’m from a small town and I know the situation there is different, but I really have no idea what the rural food bank situation is like in Ontario, let alone here.

    Before this challenge, and outside of my work, I’ve also thought about the food bank a lot this year. This is a tough year. People who never thought they’d line up for food are having to do so. And I do feel like that could be me. I’ve never felt so vulnerable, despite good jobs – both our work places have seen layoffs this year. So you are right, if I was in a tough spot, despite wanting to see more structural changes, I’d be darn glad the Food Bank was there.

  • 8. Patrick  |  June 3, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Good point about the power dynamic involved in charity. I think this is a blind spot of liberalism – we’re receptive to the idea that there are others less fortunate than us and that we ought to help them through small acts of kindness. But by the same token we somehow naturalize the idea that there are others less fortunate than us and therefore condemn them to eating our scraps; we fail to recognize the systemic conditions that generate hunger.
    In fact, I’d even say that charity fits perfectly into Conservative (they are “liberals”) ideology in that it shifts the responsibility to address the problem of hunger into the domain of private social relationships (ie. rather than declaring it a matter of collective importance – politicizing it). Conservatives will give you the same answer as to why they are so keen on de-funding programs designed to correct gender inequality. This isn’t a problem that government should be involved in because it isn’t structurally caused (and therefor of common interest) but simply the spontaneous plight of individuals. So let’s let “society” deal with it of its own accord.
    So there’s the power relation of the donor – who gets to feel good about himself for doing good – over the recipient. But there’s also the violence that is done by simply calling hunger a social issue and denying that it is a political issue. A food bank materializes this denial. This is a violence inherent to neo-liberalism.


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