May 1998. The Stop, a small food bank in Toronto, doesn’t open for another hour but already a lineup has formed at the double-steel doors opening into a back street. I nod at one of the guys, someone I recognize, and he looks back at me hopefully. I shake my head and point to my wrist. Not yet.
Inside, three volunteers are busy stacking canned goods and sorting the skids of donated food, mostly the sort of thing nobody else wants: damaged tins of creamed corn, boxes of macaroni and cheese, a few perishables like chicken nuggets with a serious case of freezer burn. But we did just get a donation of toilet paper: food-bank gold. It’ll be scooped up faster than you can say single-ply.
Richard Thompson, his grey hair like a helmet around his ears, walks in carrying plastic bags bursting with fruits and vegetables. Once a week, Richard volunteers to go around to the greengrocers and collect the produce they can no longer sell. There are tomatoes with splotches of brown, and bananas—some a bit overripe, others so soft you could drink them. It’s often the only fresh food we have to offer.
Despite having worked as the executive director of this food bank for several months, the truth is that I’ve never cared much for the idea of food banks. They’ve always seemed to me like a band-aid solution, an inadequate response to hunger.
After all, 45 percent of the adults who use our food bank still go hungry at least once a week; 25 percent of the children from families who rely on these handouts say the same. And as a result of shortages, many food banks have to turn people away, close early or cut back on hamper sizes. Nearly 90 percent of people who use food banks still have to go into debt just to buy other necessities.
In fact, I’ve come to believe the very existence of food banks has played a role—however inadvertently—in making hunger worse.
I know from first-hand experience that people working or volunteering in food banks have the very best intentions. These institutions have stepped into the breach as governments around the world have withdrawn their social safety nets, failed to establish adequate minimum wages and cut back on affordable housing and childcare. But the good people working in the food banks have become so consumed by the day-to-day pressures of delivering food to desperate people that they have no time to ask larger questions about what brings the hungry to their doors in the first place.
The result is government—supposedly responsible for the health and welfare of its citizens—is let off the hook. It can safely ignore hunger because it’s not on the political agenda.
But the problem is only growing worse. In the U.S., more than 50 million people don’t know where their next meal will come from; every year over six million households are forced to use emergency food aid like food banks or pantries. And they are no longer seen as a temporary solution in an emergency. Food banks are increasingly becoming a staple part of many people’s lives.
Indeed, instead of regarding food banks as the embodiment of a good deed—a compassionate response to hunger in an affluent society—I think we should view these small, ephemeral, volunteer-run places serving up inadequate, unhealthy food as symbols of the breakdown of our social fabric, the end of whatever collective understanding we have about our responsibility to each other.
My opinion is not a popular one, not least among many food banks themselves. It’s odd, considering that when these centers first started popping up across the continent during the economic recession of the early 1980s, no food-bank leader would say they believed their handouts were doing any more than providing temporary relief. Many would have argued, in fact, that they hoped that through advocacy for better social supports, they’d “put themselves out of business.”
October 1998. We’ve just finished setting up the food bank for the day when a white parks-department truck pulls up at the doors. Brian Green, our local parks supervisor, hops out the driver’s side. One of his young staffers steps down from the passenger seat. They’re both smiling.
They don’t say much, just open the back flap of the truck to reveal a full load of zucchinis and tomatoes, some leafy greens, yellow and green beans and small, deep purple eggplants. “It’s yours, from Earlscourt. All of it,” Green says proudly.
I’m not sure what I expected when he came into my office last spring and proposed using the overgrown bocce court in nearby Earlscourt Park for a vegetable plot. It helped, certainly, that he offered a staff member to work on the garden with our volunteers and community members. It wouldn’t have been possible with just our tiny, already overextended staff. I said yes to Brian’s idea without thinking twice.
When we first started to dig, the garden didn’t look like much. A flat patch of churned-up grass, some sandy soil. The 3500-square-foot plot was sandwiched between a neglected running track to the west and a little-used alleyway to the east. It seemed distinctly unpromising.
But the day we started to dig the holes to install fencing around the patch, there were lots of volunteers interested in helping out: Gordon, a regular at The Stop; Kiet, a long-time volunteer who is blind and deaf but manages quite well thanks to his determination and the help of his full-time support worker. Neighbors gathered around, too, wondering what we were doing. Everyone had an opinion. Dig deeper, go wider; the post is straight, it’s crooked.
Green and his staffer got local schoolchildren involved as well, starting seedlings in their classrooms to be transplanted into the garden. The kids learned not only about gardening and the environment but also about the poverty and hunger that exists in their neighborhood.
A crowd from the food bank has started to gather around the parks-department truck. From the “oohs” and “aahs,” you’d think no one had ever seen fresh eggplant or tomatoes before. There’s no question they make the canned ham on our shelves look a lot less appetizing. We don’t even have to ask: everyone helps to bring the overflowing boxes inside.
October 1999. The Stop is getting busier all the time. We’ve been working to create a more comfortable atmosphere and improve the space. We encourage people who come for food hampers to stick around for a coffee or to receive help on the other challenges that bring them to our door. They linger for housing referrals and advocacy on their immigration, legal or welfare issues. All of this is helping to take the edge off some of the desperation.
We’ve also started community kitchens and dining programs where people can learn new food skills and break down their isolation by eating with others, expanded our garden and begun hosting forums and events that highlight neighborhood resources and the issues that matter here.
Through the small, dirty window on the north end of the food bank, I spot a car pulling up at the doors. It’s Richard Thompson. My heart sinks. There’s no question he’s a good-hearted man who’s devoted a huge amount of time to this organization. But we’ve introduced veggies from our garden and started buying fresh food when we can. We also have more good-quality perishables coming in thanks to a relationship with a local food-reclamation organization. The overripe produce that Richard collects no longer has a place at The Stop. It’s not going to be an easy conversation.
The truth is, when I first arrived, I also thought that any food was good food: not that poor people deserved whatever unhealthy thing was thrown at them, but that something was better than nothing. But I didn’t distinguish between different types of food. To me, it was all the same: essential fuel for the mind and body.
Once I started working in the food bank, though, all those ideas about food being incidental, peripheral—even benign—went out the window. I saw shelves packed with canned pork and beans, salt-laden soup and lots of processed food with ingredient lists the length of my arm, stuff that few people with a choice in the matter would want to buy or eat. We had almost no fresh food. Milk was a rarity, though we had lots of frozen french fries and instant mashed potatoes.
And our neighborhood—like low-income communities elsewhere—is a hotbed of diet-related health issues like diabetes and heart disease. As health researchers the world over know, income is a key determinant of health. While prosperity doesn’t guarantee wellness, low incomes are nearly always associated with health problems. The diabetes rate in our area is more than double that of wealthier parts of the city. The cheap packaged foods available in our food bank began to seem to me like a health care crisis on a plate.
Plus, the experience is so often a slow, painful death of the spirit—forcing yourself to visit a crowded, ill-equipped, makeshift place, answer personal questions, swallow your pride as you wait in a lineup. Reaching the front of the line only to find bizarre processed food or slimy, wilted lettuce that couldn’t be revived with electric shock treatment is the final nail in the coffin.
It’s clear that a lot has to change. Already, the new programs have started to change the organization: from a place focused on a single demoralizing transaction—food hamper handouts—it is becoming a community resource where people know they’ll be treated respectfully and offered opportunities to succeed.
I brace myself to confront Richard. It’s going to be a long fight, but every social transformation needs a bit of grit to get traction.
Adapted and excerpted from The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement. To learn more about The Stop and other Community Food Centres across Canada, visit www.cfccanada.ca, www.mhpbooks.com/books/the-stop or follow @aplaceforfood on Twitter.
Nick Saul is President and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC). Andrea Curtis is the author of Into the Blue: Family Secrets and the Search for a Great Lakes Shipwreck.
Image via shutterstock.