Food banks don’t reduce food insecurity, so why did the federal government give them $200 million in emergency aid?

Posted on January 27, 2021 in Social Security Debates

Source: — Authors: – News/GTA

On the Friday before the Thanksgiving long weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged Canadians to support their local food bank in a photo op at a Metro grocery store in Ottawa.

The appeal was part of the Liberal government’s pledge of another $100 million in funding to food banks and food charities — on top of the $100 million it gave in the spring — to combat rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Framed as both a gesture of compassion from a caring government and a meaningful way to address poverty, the announcement was broadly celebrated.

But in Toronto, Valerie Tarasuk was outraged. Canada’s foremost expert on food insecurity couldn’t believe the government was giving money to food banks.

“It’s craziness,” she said. “People like me spend all this time figuring this stuff out and then you watch these policy decisions and you think, ‘Why are we wasting our time doing this research?’ Nobody’s using it.”

Tarasuk, a professor at the University of Toronto, has been studying food insecurity for nearly 30 years. All of her research suggests that giving people food does nothing to make them less food-insecure, which is defined as having inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints.

The problem is not simply hunger; it’s poverty, she said. The only way to meaningfully address it is to increase income supports so people have enough money to buy food for themselves.

“We’ve got this bizarre thing happening with the situation getting worse and governments acting as if they should jump on the bandwagon and also donate to food banks,” Tarasuk added. “It’s so far from evidence-based policy I just don’t know how else to talk about it.”

It’s one thing for the average person to donate to a food bank, she continued. “But how on earth does it make sense for policy-makers to behave the same way? They actually have another option — they can deal with the problem.”

$200 million – Federal aid given to food banks and other food charities as part of the Emergency Food Security Fund


This year marks the 40th anniversary of Canada’s first food bank — which opened in Edmonton and was envisioned as a temporary response to a recession — and the rate of food insecurity in the country has only increased since then. Even before the pandemic, food insecurity was on the rise, with one in eight households — more than 4.4 million people, including 1.2 million children — reporting some level of food insecurity, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data.

In May, with the economic shocks of the pandemic still reverberating, a “snapshot” StatsCan survey showed rates had increased to nearly one in seven Canadians — more than five million people.

Although the need may be greater than ever, Tarasuk said it’s “absolutely unprecedented” for the government to be giving large sums of money to food banks, and she fears it will further entrench a charitable system that isn’t solving the problem. “Is that going to be our way forward, as opposed to adequate social programs?”

The federal government insists not. It says there’s no intention to make the Emergency Food Security Fund permanent, and they are under no illusion that the $200 million delivered to food banks and other food charities will address the root causes of food insecurity.

“We’re going through a crisis,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of agriculture and agri-food, the department responsible for the funding. “We do not pretend that with these measures we will get … people out of poverty. We’re just making sure they’re being fed day by day in the case of an emergency.”

28.6% – Percentage of Black and Indigenous Canadians who are food-insecure, the highest rates among any racial or cultural group


To be clear, the hundreds of millions in pandemic aid given to food banks are a fraction of the $77 billion the government spent on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — which paid $2,000 a month, from April to October, to Canadians who lost work due to the pandemic — and Bibeau pointed to other income-support programs, such as the Canada Child Benefit and the Canada Workers Benefit, as examples of the more substantial ways the federal government is tackling poverty.

The food banks, meanwhile, freely admit they are not the long-term solution.

“We’re never going to feed our way out of food insecurity,” said Chris Hatch, CEO of Food Banks Canada, which was one of the main funding recipients. But Hatch said there is still the problem of people needing food today. In that respect, the government aid was critical, he said, especially early in the pandemic when food bank volunteers stopped showing up, donations plummeted and demand surged. Without the support, many food banks wouldn’t have been able to keep their doors open, let alone stock their shelves, Hatch said.

But even in an emergency the government should be framing the problem of food insecurity as a matter of justice, not charity, said Paul Taylor, executive director of FoodShare, a Toronto-based charity that also received funding through the Emergency Food Security Fund.

“The name in and of itself shows me that the government either doesn’t understand what food security is or is wilfully trying to make it harder for Canadians to understand,” Taylor said. “It is outrageous that our government seems to be doing everything they can to convince Canadians that food insecurity is something that we need to respond to through charity. This is not an issue for charities.”

One of the longstanding criticisms of food banks is that they are a Band-Aid solution, but Tarasuk argues that they are actually worse. That’s because most food-insecure people don’t ever use food banks, she said. “It’s a Band-Aid that only covers a quarter of the wound.”

Research shows that less than 25 per cent of people who are food-insecure ever go to the food bank.

Many people who are food-insecure are more likely to borrow from family or friends, take out payday loans or deplete their savings before using a food bank, said Carolyn Stewart, CEO of Feed Ontario, the provincial food bank network, which represents more than 500 emergency food providers in the GTA alone. “We’re kind of the last measure people will take in a lot of circumstances.”

When someone gets to that point, a lack of food isn’t their only problem.

“By the time somebody tells you they can’t afford the food they need, they’re in a very bad situation,” Tarasuk said. “It signifies such a serious level of financial crisis.”

They might be missing bill payments, going without medication or struggling to pay rent.

“The food budget doesn’t exist separately from the rest of the budget,” said Elaine Power, a professor at Queen’s University. “Food insecurity is really a sign of something much broader and deeper, which is poverty.”

14.6% – Percentage of Canadians who reported some level of food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a May survey by Statistics Canada. This represents an increase from the 12.7% reported in 2017-18  SOURCE: SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA, PROOF FOOD INSECURITY POLICY RESEARCH AND CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION JOURNAL

Food insecurity, unsurprisingly, is associated with poorer physical and mental health. Health-care costs in Ontario are 49 per cent higher for adults in moderately food-insecure households and 121 per cent higher for adults in severely food-insecure households, according to a 2015 study. A study published last year found that severely food-insecure individuals die nine years earlier than their food-secure counterparts.

So receiving food donations may quell someone’s hunger, but it leaves their fundamental problems unresolved, Power said, describing food banks as having become a “smokescreen.”

“They allow us to think that we’re doing something — people are less hungry — but underneath it lets the government off the hook so that the real, more fundamental change can’t happen.”

Nicola Moore, a singer-songwriter and single mother of three in Hamilton, said she has occasionally used her local food bank when an unexpected expense left her in a “crunch” between cheques and she needed an “emergency bridge” to get through the month.

“They’re a Band-Aid solution, but what is the other solution that we have right now? I feel like they’re holding the ropes together between the people that can afford food and the people that cannot.”

Moore, who pieces together her income from Ontario Works, the Canada Child Benefit and sporadic work, said she wished there was something to help “people like me get to the next level” so she could rid herself of the anxiety about whether she’ll be able to feed her children.

“Always having to worry about what is coming in and what is going out is frightening on a daily basis.”

While food insecurity has risen during the pandemic, at least according to last spring’s StatsCan survey, the rate of food bank usage is a more complicated story.

Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank reported a 36-per-cent increase in food bank visits between May and August 2020, compared to the previous year, and they believe their numbers haven’t yet peaked.

But in parts of the country with a lower cost of living, the introduction of CERB and other income supports stemmed the initial surge. More than half of food banks across the country actually reported a decline in usage between March and June.

CERB “made a huge difference,” said Hatch, of Food Banks Canada.

That aligns with a large body of research showing that increasing income is the only way to change someone’s food security status, said Power, the Queen’s researcher.

Power, who will publish “The Case for Basic Income” later this year, said she became a basic income advocate as a result of studying food insecurity and seeing the impact a guaranteed income had on people’s lives. “I think CERB gave us a road map.”

19% – Canadians living with children who reported some level of food insecurity during COVID-19, according to a May survey by Statistics Canada  SOURCE: SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA, PROOF FOOD INSECURITY POLICY RESEARCH AND CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION JOURNAL

Nick Saul, co-founder and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada — which also received government funding during the pandemic — said he isn’t sold on a guaranteed basic income, but he does believe in raising the income floor for all people, and he agreed that CERB “points to a better place.”

The evidence is irrefutable that food insecurity is about income, not food, he said.

Saul pointed to how the Canada Child Benefit led to a sharp reduction in severe food insecurity in families and how food insecurity drops by nearly 50 per centwhen someone turns 65 and can begin to collect Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

“We have some very, very clear examples of when we invest in people through income we have a material impact on reducing food insecurity.”

Although he is unequivocal when he says charity can’t solve food insecurity, Saul still believes the government funding during the pandemic was “extraordinarily important” to meet an emergency need. “When a fire hits or a tornado hits you do what you can to get food to people,” he said. “That’s what happened. We were slammed.”

That said, it wasn’t without some reservation that Saul took the government’s money, even though he knew his organization and its partners needed it. While he described community food centres as “categorically a different species” than food banks, he remains concerned about the expansion of the emergency food sector. “It started quite innocently and very thoughtfully and from a very caring and compassionate place, but … it has zero impact on the overall problem.”

121% – Higher than average annual health-care costs for adults living in severely food-insecure households compared to food-secure households  SOURCE: SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA, PROOF FOOD INSECURITY POLICY RESEARCH AND CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION JOURNAL

The food banks themselves say they don’t want to further entrench their services, and in their respective annual reports repeatedly call for policy changesto reduce poverty, from raising social assistance rates to implementing universal child care.

Stewart, from Ontario’s provincial food bank network, said her organization does not want any more government assistance. “We would rather any investments be made to the individual to help support and grow income so people can afford all of their basic necessities without the need of food banks.”

While food charities can play a meaningful role in building community, Saul said, it’s more important than ever to be clear that they’re not the answer.

“I would never denigrate people’s commitment to helping out their neighbours and trying to touch and feel the problem,” he said. “… But make sure you reserve time, whether you’re an organization or an individual, to be talking about the policy things that need to change in order for us not to be trapped in this gerbil wheel of food, food, food, trying to solve a problem that it absolutely will never, ever be able to solve.”

Brendan Kennedy is a Toronto-based social justice reporter for the Star.

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