I could hardly believe my ears as I listened to a CBC Radio interview with Nick Saul on May 14th. He’s co-author of a book that argues traditional food banks may be doing more harm than good.
Yet here he was in Halifax on Information Morning, a program that relentlessly promotes Feed Nova Scotia, the charity that collects and distributes food to food banks across the province.
“I think you have to ask some very basic questions about food banks,” Saul told InfoMorn host, Don Connolly. “Do they reduce hunger? Do they improve health? Do they create pathways out of poverty? The answer to all of those things is no.”
Saul himself ran The Stop, a food bank in Toronto that he turned into a centre where people get together to grow and cook their own food. Now, as president of Community Food Centres Canada, he’s promoting that concept across the country. He sees it as an alternative to the “corporate bad food” packed full of salt, sugar and fat, which existing food banks hand out.
Saul told Connolly that we need to be more honest about traditional food banks. “Do they divide us as citizens between the haves and the have nots and do they create a moral release valve for government that collectively takes us all off the hook? I would say yeah.”
Connolly himself acknowledged that the food bank in Halifax was not supposed to be permanent; that there were plans to shut it down in the mid 1990s so that governments would be forced to shoulder their responsibility for helping the poor. But, the shut down never happened as politicians continued to cut welfare rates and housing programs in the name of fighting government deficits and debt. Nor did the politicians increase minimum wages enough so that the working poor could earn enough money to live on.
Now, nearly two decades later, poor people still depend on food banks. The most recent figures from Food Banks Canada show that in March 2012, more than 880,000 people received help from a food bank across the country, an increase of more than 30 per cent since 2008.
Bridging the gap
When Connolly suggested that without food banks “some people aren’t going to eat” and that food banks are still needed to bridge “a big gap,” Saul answered:
“There is a big gap, but you know I would argue sometimes that the food bank actually makes it worse. I mean if you look at say health, for example, if you look at any low-income neighbourhood and you overlay that with health indices, you’re going to see obesity, cancer, a whole raft of diet-related illnesses. You know we spend 50 cents of every dollar in probably every province in this country on health care, a big chunk of that is on diet-related illness, so you know, I just think we can do better.”
Saul’s comments came in the midst of Information Morning’s 4th annual campaign to raise money for Feed Nova Scotia by asking artists to submit paintings for a calendar and art auction. Last year, sales of the calendar and the auction of the paintings raised $106,000 for provincial food banks. Information Morning also takes part in the CBC’s annual Christmas food bank drive on behalf of Feed Nova Scotia.
Yet, in spite of these efforts, the number of hungry people continues to rise. In March 2012, for example, 23,561 Nova Scotians received food from a food bank, an increase of nearly 40 per cent since 2008 when the current economic slump began. But Food Banks Canada says the causes of hunger go much deeper than this latest recession.
“The key factor at the root of the need for food banks is low income,” Food Banks Canada writes. “People asking for help are working in low-paying jobs, receiving meagre social assistance benefits, managing on inadequate pensions.” The organization goes on to warn: “Hunger is toxic for those living through it and it is harmful to Canada as a whole. It reduces the economic contributions of individuals, and increases costs related to health care and social services.”
Or as Nick Saul told Don Connolly, “Being a passive recipient of food charity isn’t the answer in any way. Hunger isn’t out there because we don’t have food. Hunger’s out there because of low minimum wage and inadequate social assistance rates. We don’t have a national housing strategy or child care programs.”
So why is Information Morning devoting so much effort and airtime to raising money for a food bank system that may only be making things worse? To be fair, the program does broadcast stories about such issues as the lack of affordable housing and inadequate welfare rates. But its coverage of poverty is episodic and nowhere near the intensity, for example, that it focussed on the misuse of expense accounts by provincial politicians.
The intense media coverage of the so-called “MLA expenses scandal” forced the politicians to bring in tighter spending rules. But the lack of sustained media focus on the scandal of poverty lets them off the hook. It also perpetuates a system in which food banks and media programs such as Information Morning collaborate on raising more and more money to feed the poor even as the toxic problem of hunger continues to grow.