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Food Banks in Canada

Feeding those in need

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Food Banks in Canada

Designed as a temporary solution, a growing number of people across Canada depend on food banks. Food banks are trying to come up with permanent solutions to hunger.

In this holiday season of festive feasts and charitable giving, agencies such as food banks warmly welcome the generosity of Canadians. Designed to be a temporary solution to feed the hungry, food banks have become a staple of life to a growing number of Canadians.

More than a temporary solution

Canada’s first food bank opened its doors in 1981 in the city of Edmonton as temporary relief for people experiencing financial hardship. Thirty years later, there are over 800 food banks across the country. Their use increased by 26 percent between 2008 and 2011.

Statistics are being tabulated for 2012, but agencies including the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society report a 10 percent rise in clients. A north Toronto food bank has seen increases of about 13 percent this year.

Anticipated rising food costs from the effects of US summer droughts raise concern for increased demands on food banks this winter.

Who uses food banks?

“Canadians from across the social spectrum use food banks,” reports Denyse Boxell of Food Banks Canada. “Particularly during and after the recent recession, many people who never considered using a food bank found themselves in precarious economic situations.”

Boxell provides the following glimpse into food bank clients. Nearly 900,000 individuals are helped each month by food banks; of these

  • 50 percent of households consist of families with children
  • 20 percent of households have income from current or recent employment
  • 38 percent are children and youth
  • 11 percent of people have never visited a food bank before

Anyone, and everyone, could end up needing the services of a food bank, in many cases due to circumstances beyond their control. Urban and rural residents, low-income families, single-parent households, seniors on fixed incomes, individuals with a disability, Aboriginals, the homeless, recent immigrants, and the unemployed are vulnerable. Contributing factors might be a marital breakup, serious illness, or house fire.

What do food banks provide?

Essential, nutritious food is given to people who can’t afford enough for themselves or their family. While nonperishable, shelf-stable foods are staples, there is an increasing focus on offering fresh produce. Household products such as laundry soap, diapers, and toothbrushes are available from some locations. Many food banks also provide budget counselling, client advocacy, health information, and referrals to other services.

A growing number of food banks run collective kitchens and community gardens, or link with organizations specializing in these programs. Learning Kitchen, operated by Feed Nova Scotia, offers a culinary training program that allows individuals facing employment barriers to learn skills that equip them for jobs in the food service industry. Feed Nova Scotia also runs a helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to assist callers work through challenges.

Many food banks are working with community agencies to create a wrap-around service. Traditionally, food banks operated as an emergency service that supplied food to those in need. However, a wrap-around service gives clients a hand up as opposed to a handout. Food banks are increasingly looking for solutions to challenges that their clients face on a daily basis.

The changing face of food banks

Working with other agencies and offering a more holistic approach to clients’ well-being has taken food banks in a new direction. Along with this wider vision, the number of people accessing food banks has increased.

“More and more food banks are building the idea of community into what they do, and broadening their scope,” says Boxell.

As food banks broaden their scope, other organizations, particularly community health organizations, have added a food program to the services they provide. This has resulted in more organizations with food programs as opposed to separate food banks. More than 2,500 such food programs now exist. ä

The future of food banks

“The future is always uncertain,” says Boxell. “Food banks depend on volunteers. Current volunteers tend to be older. We need younger Canadians to get involved and ensure programs grow and evolve. In the short term, food banks are focusing more on fresh produce, expanding client services, or working with other organizations to provide a more holistic level of care.”

The goal of food banks, such as the Alberta Food Bank Network Association, is to make themselves obsolete, or to become only a small part of a greater solution. If an individual gets to the point where they have to access the food bank, there are other factors at play. If those factors can be addressed, an inability to afford food will be taken out of the equation.

“We hope food banks don’t have a future,” says Donald Benham, director of public education at Winnipeg Harvest Inc. “Our organization is committed to ending the need for food banks completely, with an interim goal of reducing the need by half by 2020.”

To achieve this, Winnipeg Harvest works with all sectors of the community, providing advocacy for individuals with the welfare system, and helping to expand their job training role in programs such as safe food handling certificates and forklift training.

They have joined with other groups in calling for an increase to welfare rates and the minimum wage as a first step in reducing hunger and poverty. Winnipeg Harvest supports the recommendation that federal and provincial governments adopt the Refundable Family Tax Benefit, a form of guaranteed annual income.

“We want to find solutions that really work in ending hunger and poverty,” says Benham.

How can I help?

  • Most food banks do not receive government funding. They rely mainly on the generosity of individuals and businesses willing to donate food, funds, and volunteer time.
  • Participate in fundraising activities put on by your local food bank, whether it’s buying a raffle ticket or attending a pancake breakfast.
  • Donate money to your local food bank. Charitable tax receipts can be issued for donations.
  • Check out foodbankscanada.ca for further information.

What items do food banks need most?

Food banks appreciate food donations. They’re always in need of

  • pasta and pasta sauces
  • canned and frozen meats and fish
  • meat alternatives (peanut butter, soy, packaged nuts)
  • canned goods (beans, soups, stews)
  • dairy (fresh, canned, and powdered milk)
  • canned vegetables and fruit
  • whole grain cereals
  • infant foods

Eliminating food bank myths

Myth: The same people use food banks for long time periods.
Fact: Client turnover is high, as much as 10 percent each and every month. The majority of clients require help for short periods.

Myth: It can’t happen to me. I’ll never need to use a food bank.
Fact: Health problems, sudden job loss, family breakup—any of these issues, as well as many others, can create a need for assistance.

Myth: People who use food banks don’t really need to. They’re just using the system.
Fact: Many food bank clients work, have recently lost a job, or suffer from a mental illness.

Myth: It’s mainly adults who use food banks.
Fact: Fifty percent of the households food banks help are families with children.

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