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Opinion: Food Banks: A Modern Day Phenomenon by Ken Levitt

In March 2013, 833,098 persons were served by food banks in Canada. Food bank use remains high and these 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 schoolage and go to bed hungry.

In Richmond, 1300 persons are served each week by the Richmond Food Bank. Of the 1300 recipients there are 524 persons who actually attend this food bank and they represent 2.4 persons per household. The majority are seniors and the mentally-challenged. 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 honour system. The average value of a food hamper is about $100, and includes the 5 basic food groups.

The Jewish Food Bank in Vancouver serves 350 persons of which 55 are children under 18 years of age, 95 are seniors. 16% of the Jewish community lives on or below the poverty level. The value of each food hamper is $54 for a single individual, larger family units receive more food. This is in addition to food vouchers supplied by Jewish Family Service Agency. Food hampers are delivered every two weeks to those unable to do so themselves.

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? Do they have to choose between prescription medications (if not covered by a drug program) and food? Will there be funds for clothing and entertainment? Most of us, in the comfort of our warm homes, take these things for granted.

It is generally accepted that food banks had their origins in the early 1980’s during a major recession. Hunger was affecting the lives of many unemployed, under-employed or disabled Canadians. It was intended as a stop gap measure until the economy improved. When the situation improved, 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 my opinion, food banks have

become secondary extensions of weakened social safety nets. Food banks may be seen as undermining the state’s obligation to respect and fulfil its requirement to ensure none of its citizens go hungry. Food banks are driven by poverty but in no way solve the problem of poverty. If anything, the good will they provide allows governments to opt out of taking a leadership role in increasing minimum wages and rates of employment; thereby 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 understood the plight of those being served. They served 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 publicize their efforts in the hope of encourage other corporations to do the same.

Food banks will be needed for some time in the future until governments; federal, provincial and municipal develop, embrace and put in place a national viable 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 elements were prioritized and made operational, the precarious financial situation of many Canadians would be improved.

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.

By Ken Levitt