In March 2013, 833,098 persons were served by food banks in Canada. Food bank use remains high and many Canadians depend on food banks for weekly, semi-monthly or monthly grocery items in order to put food on the table. One-half of the families being served include children and close to one-half are two-parent families. More than one-third of food bank recipients are children, many of whom are school age and go to bed hungry.
In Richmond, 1,300 persons are served each week by the Richmond Food Bank. Of the 1,300 recipients, there are 524 persons who actually attend this food bank and they represent 2.4 persons per household. The majority are seniors and people with mental health issues. These groups usually visit each week. Others who use the food bank are on low incomes and use the service as needed. Users must be Richmond residents. Once residency is proven, recipients are granted food packages on an honor system. The average value of a food hamper is about $100 and the food bank tries to ensure the five basic food groups are included.
The Jewish Food Bank in Vancouver serves 350 persons, of whom 55 are children under 18 years of age, and 95 are seniors. If, as it is estimated, 16% of the Jewish community lives on or below the poverty level, it is possible that many in need are not being served or are being served by other organizations. The value of each Jewish Food Bank hamper for a single individual, for example, is $54. Larger family units receive more food. This is in addition to food vouchers supplied by Jewish Family Service Agency. Food that is made available is seen as “supplementary,” enough to fill the gap until the next pay cheque or income. Food hampers are delivered every two weeks to those unable to attend for personal pick up.
For seniors, this is a very troubling scenario. As of two years ago, three out of five women in Greater Vancouver over 65 lived on an income of less than $25,000 per year (as reported by United Way). Many seniors on low, fixed incomes must make major decisions each month. Once rent is paid, are there enough funds for food or do they have to choose between prescription drugs (if not covered by a drug program) and food? Will there be funds for sundries, clothing and entertainment? Will there be enough money to eat out once or twice during the month? Most of us who live in the comfort of our warm homes take this for granted. For a good description of the need for affordable housing, see David Hume’s excellent article in the Nov. 23 Province.
It is generally accepted that food banks had their origins in the early 1980s during a major recession. Hunger was affecting the lives of many Canadians who were unemployed, unable to work, under-employed or whose incomes were below a living wage. It was to be a short-lived situation until the economy improved, as it eventually did, and the need for food banks diminished. However, today, food banks are an integral part of the social fabric. There are currently about 500 food banks across Canada, a sad commentary for a rich nation. In this writer’s opinion, food banks have become secondary extensions of weakened social safety nets. In this respect, food banks may be seen as undermining the state’s obligation to respect and fulfil its requirement to ensure that none of its citizens go hungry. Food banks are driven by poverty but in no way solve the problem of poverty. If anything, the goodwill they provide allows governments to opt out of taking their leadership role in decreasing the need for food banks.
Those persons who staff and volunteer at food banks are not “do-gooders looking for recognition.” Volunteers are the backbone of most not-for-profit organizations. The volunteers that I met while observing one food bank in action were made up mostly of senior citizens who were giving back to the community, who understood the plight of those being served and who served them with respect and genuine caring. Thousands of individual donors, many anonymous, provide millions of dollars each year in support. Many corporations take great pride in supporting food banks, in kind and in cash. They often make the public aware through advertising, hoping what they do will encourage other corporations to do the same.
Food banks will be needed for some time in the future until governments at all levels – federal, provincial and municipal – develop, embrace and put in place a viable national anti-poverty program. Food banks can collectively lobby for stronger and sustainable social safety nets for those in need. In a recent publication, Dignity for All: A National Anti-Poverty Plan for Canada (2013), a number of priorities were considered: income security, housing and homelessness, health, food security, early childhood education and care, jobs and employment. If two or three of these were prioritized and put into operation, it would bring many thousands into mainstream Canada.
Much has already been studied and written about poverty and its effects on too many Canadian citizens. It is time for a concerted and coordinated plan of action. Until that happens, thank G-d for food banks.
Ken Levitt is a vice-president of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver and a former chief executive officer of Louis Brier Home and Hospital.