Food Banks, Christmas, and Scrooge

by Terrance Hunsley

In December, the CBC carried out a robust public campaign to help food banks across the country to generate donations. They devoted many hours of program time,  enlisted the involvement of musicians, interviewed lots of food bank volunteers and workers. Public figures and community leaders joined in. Everyone was delighted with their success, thanking people for their generosity. In British Columbia alone, a total of about $2.5 million was raised. The whole thing was a heartwarming experience. 

Ever wonder why we have food banks and if they are a good thing? It seems obvious that they are responding to a need, and that they generate a lot of human kindness. Especially at Christmastime, there are lots of gifts, and lots of TV cameras recording lots of community leaders and public figures helping to serve a meal to the poor. 

So why would Foodbanks Canada say …

…Food Banks Canada and the food banking network has(sic) been saying for years – only sound public policies that raise people’s incomes and lift them out of poverty can truly address food insecurity in the long term…(1)

They make it clear that food banks  are not an adequate response to poverty.  They exist because governments will not provide the poor with enough money to live independently. Provincial governments have chosen social assistance policies which force people to humiliate themselves to put food on their table. 

Food banks started popping up in Canadian cities in the early 1980’s and have spread across the country. They are now an integrated industry, with more than 700 in place, and in a survey of a single month in 2018, reported serving 5.6 million meals. They employ thousands of staff and volunteers. Multinational food producers and retail grocery chains chip in some unsold products and get a tax subsidy for it. Lots of other businesses take donations for them.

We didn’t really have food banks until the 1980’s.

That’s when provincial governments started emptying their institutions for people with disabilities. They called it “deinstitutionalization.” Institutions were expensive, and provincial governments began to agree with activists for “normalization,” that the inhabitants would be better off living in the community. 

So they put people into rooming houses and inscribed them on social assistance. They developed “community-based services” to look after them. But they underfunded those services. Many of the formerly institutionalized were mentally ill or substance abusers and dependent on medication. When they stopped their meds, they acted up and got kicked out of their rooming houses. And we birthed the phenomenon of homelessness. 

People who saw the suffering on the streets developed shelters and soup kitchens and food banks. When the crack cocaine wave hit the streets in the eighties, the homeless population swelled again. Some of them are still there, taking part in the opioid crisis.  And when provincial governments saw how many people could be kept alive by the community response, they decided in the early nineties, with active involvement of the federal government, to slash social assistance for all of their able-bodied caseloads. 

This in turn permitted the same governments to avoid increasing minimum wages to keep up with productivity increases, or even inflation for many years, and to thereby support industries that pay less than a living wage. Many of those bottom feeder industries, like Walmart, have since paid out billions to their owners.

So now Canada has not only a large homeless population, but 19.4% of workers earning less than 2/3 of the median wage – far more low wage workers than the OECD average of 15.3% (OECD 2019).

In the early eighties, the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Food Bank announced that they had taken a decision to go out of existence in five years. They saw clearly what was happening. They believed it was wrong that governments were using a screen of normalization and “community based services” to dump people onto the charity of the community. That does not mean that those were not good concepts. But the concepts assume an adequate income support system for people who need it. And that didn’t happen.

And the Ottawa food bank stayed and expanded.

And now we have “normalized” an entire subclass of people in need in a country which can so easily afford to provide them support and opportunity. And every Christmas we celebrate our heartfelt generosity which helps to perpetuate the problem.


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