Do food banks work?

October 24th, 2011

Professor Valerie TarasukWhen we first ran this interview with Professor Valerie Tarasuk on May 3, 2010, Toronto food banks had reported that donations were down significantly during the Easter food drive.  Flip forward to a few weeks ago – Thanksgiving, 2011 – and the same message came from the city’s food banks:  both cash and food donations were down. 

“Sadly, this is an issue that hasn’t changed much in the past year,” says Professor Tarasuk.  With this in mind, we thought it would be valuable to re-post our interview with Tarasuk.  She is a professor in U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, the Dalla Lanna School of Public Health and the Centre for Urban and Community Studies.


Do food banks work in helping people with no or low incomes to put food on the table?

The short answer is, yes, absolutely, food banks do help. And I must say that the effort to support food banks is a testament to the compassionate nature of Canadians. People really do care about the plight of those among us who are going hungry.

But what never comes through in the media coverage of food banks is that in all the research only a fraction of the people who are struggling to put food on the table go to food banks. It’s stunning to hear that, because food banks literally own the public perception of the issue of hunger in our cities.

This goes back to 1994, the first time a national survey ran questions about people having trouble getting enough food because of financial constraints. From that survey it was clear that the numbers reporting the problem were much bigger than the numbers going to food banks. The estimates we’ve got are somewhere between 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 people having trouble getting enough to eat because of poverty issues will turn up at a food bank.

We’ve done our own studies and have found that people who go to food banks are more likely to be desperate for help but there’s nothing to say that going to a food bank prevents them from going hungry.

That seems counter intuitive, because if you are hungry, you go to a food bank, then you’re ok, right?

But the problem is that the system is completely donor driven. Food banks can only give out what they’ve got. And they don’t have enough food to meet the needs of everyone who needs help. So, people often don’t get enough food to meet their needs until their next cheque comes. Food banks will always tell you, in the context of these food drives, that demand exceeds supply. But what is distressing for me is that in the conversation that goes on in the press around the food bank meeting its target and the appeals to the public to donate to meet that target, it’s as if the target represents the need. And that’s tragic because the need is many, many times greater than the target.

Why wouldn’t people go to a food bank?

Stigma. It’s a humiliating thing to do. In an affluent society like ours, people don’t want to have to seek food charity. So, they only do it when they are absolutely desperate. My research group did interviews a few years ago and heard heartbreaking stories about parents not wanting their kids to know they went to a food bank because they felt it was embarrassing. We also had lots of people tell us that they would sooner manage with what they had – even if that was way too little food to meet their nutritional needs – than ask for charity.

On top of this reason, the amount of food people get is very small and maybe not culturally appropriate. People also complain about the food sometimes being in bad condition. And some can’t get to a food bank because they are working during the hours when it is open.

These sorts of problems suggest that maybe there could be improvements to make food banks more accessible and less stigmatizing. There certainly are examples of food banks working to do exactly that. But the important thing to remember is that the need for food assistance greatly outstrips the supply. If everyone in this city who was struggling to put food on the table turned up at a food bank, we’d be talking about four or five times the numbers that food banks are dealing with today

Do food banks stock fruit and vegetables and fresh milk?

They try really hard to get these foods. They understand that there are issues related to the nutritional quality of what they’re able to distribute so you’ll see during food drives appeals for cash donations so food banks can purchase certain items to improve the nutrition of what they’re distributing. There are also arrangements with, for example, dairy farmers, to supply fresh milk. But that kind of food is as precious as gold in the food bank system. So the distribution of things like fresh milk is carefully rationed, and nobody goes home with very much.

What’s so painful to see is that as income declines, milk, fruit and vegetables aren’t included in the shopping cart. People know those are expensive foods and as they work to try and manage on a very low budget, they have to make trade-offs. They’ll end up with just a few low-cost foods that are high in carbohydrates and maybe a little meat for protein. But the milk, fruit and vegetables will be seen as unaffordable when someone’s budget is tight.

A diet of mostly carbs catches up with you eventually, doesn’t it?

Recent calculations show that 1 in 10 families in Toronto have trouble affording food. The health consequences of that are profound. Someone who is struggling to get by or is going without food or skipping meals because they can’t afford them, is not able to take up the messages that we are told about avoiding trans fat, lowering sodium, and increasing your fibre and fruit and vegetable intake. These people cannot practise healthy eating.

It’s even worse if they have chronic conditions like diabetes or heart trouble, which are common in Canada and more common among those with low incomes. Usually diet plays a big role in managing these health risks. But people struggling to put food on the table and who have these conditions cannot possibly follow dietary recommendations because they are focused on more basic food needs that simply fill them up. That’s not healthy.

In addition to food banks, what can be done?

Simply put, more government support for people with low incomes.

The fact that food banks are entrenched in our society speaks strongly to the compassion, caring and commitment of more privileged Canadians to not let people go hungry. That act speaks to a phenomenal sense of social responsibility and concern around this issue.

We need to figure out how to translate that commitment to increased support for people with perilously low incomes. Those are very fundamental social values that are being acted on. We need take those social values and put them in the ballot box. We need to entrench the idea that food is a right in our income support programs. Giving food to food banks represent a value system that is precious, but it somehow hasn’t been translated into our public sector. And it needs to be, if we really are going to prevent people from going hungry.

I honestly think that the same people who take their food to fire halls would want to see that our governments provide enough income support to those who qualify for assistance so that everyone has enough money to meet their basic food needs.

Sorting through food items checking expiration dates. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy