Food banks are not a solution

The path to end hunger comes to a fork in the road

Food banks started popping up in the 1980s as a temporary measure but 30 years later they’re still handing out hampers to people who turn to them as a last resort. Three people who have worked with the poor and the hungry agree that food banks are not the answer to their problems but their opinions on where society goes from here vary dramatically.

At one end of the spectrum Nick Saul envisions a community food centre that empowers the people who use it. Saul transformed a small food bank called The Stop in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto into a network of programs involving community kitchens gardens a green house and a farmers’ market as well as educational initiatives support groups and advocacy. Now as head of the new national organization Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) he wants to implement that model across the country. At the other end of the spectrum Dr. Lynn McIntyre of the University of Calgary says talk of food banks and food centres misses the point entirely because food insecurity is an issue of poverty not food. She proposes a guaranteed income supplement to eliminate the need for food banks altogether. Meanwhile executive director James McAra of the Calgary Food Bank says that until that day finally comes the organization and its partner agencies will continue providing food and support for people who need it.


Saul’s work to revolutionize food banks has been endorsed by celebrity chef Jaime Oliver been written about in several publications and is the subject of a book he wrote with his wife Andrea Curtis ( The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement) . His vision is appealing — provide healthy food for emergency relief while offering additional resources and supports to help low-income clients connect with others and advocate for policy changes such as higher social assistance rates.

Nick Saul

When Saul first became executive director of The Stop in 1998 he says the people who lined up for hampers of second-rate food were too ashamed to look him in the eye. He argues that food banks create “us and them” — those giving donations or volunteering have the halos while those taking food are expected to feel grateful for cans of soup and not-so-fresh produce. That realization led him to start making changes. Saul stopped accepting cast-off food from grocery stores and refused to put unhealthy items in the hampers instead forming new partnerships and raising money to source healthier food.

The Stop also started referring people to agencies that could help them and encouraging them to get involved in community programs such as a nutrition class for expectant mothers. Over the years as Saul secured more stable funding the number and variety of available programs increased a community garden was developed and eventually a second venue opened featuring the greenhouse and farmers’ market. Saul says those programs and initiatives helped empower people and restored their dignity — many clients became volunteers at The Stop and some became employees or went on to find jobs elsewhere.

“There has been a general attitude from the food bank sector that you know gardens and kitchens those are middle-class things. Why would you be doing that? It’s not going to change hunger” says Saul. “And I’m like well they’re not really about changing hunger per se they’re about creating spaces where people can come together and feel like they have a stake in it and meet others and break down their isolation to be part of something bigger than themselves….

“You can politicize that energy too. Change happens because you fight for it and you can’t expect people to be engaged in fighting for change if you’re only dealing with them on a transactional basis like ‘Here’s your food see you later.’”

Saul stepped down from The Stop in 2012 to become executive director and CEO of CFCC. Following two pilot projects in Toronto the organization is ready to expand across the country starting with locations in Winnipeg Dartmouth and Toronto’s Regent Park.

“The idea is to try to build three of these a year for the next five years so eventually 15 of them from coast to coast to coast. And then there’s a whole bunch of open source information to try and encourage and inspire others to come at food differently than the transaction of the food bank” says Saul. “We think that’s not good enough.”

During a recent visit to promote his book and talk about CFCC Saul told Fast Forward Weekly the plan may include a future community food centre in Calgary. So what does that entail? Saul half-jokes that for $500000 a community can get a “Stop in a box” although he’s quick to add that every centre will be tailored to a community’s specific needs. Basically the plan requires a suitable community partner enough money to adapt a building in an appropriate community (one-time capital grants are available) plus stable funding for operations.

“The philosophy is we’ve got some ideas you’ve got a structure and you’re working with folks and you’re interested — let’s marry and we’ll figure out what the best suite of programs is” says Saul. “We’ll resource it properly and then we’ll have this really great space that’s thinking along these lines in an integrated way.”

Saul an outspoken critic of food banks expects there will be resistance to CFCC but he’s not afraid to ruffle feathers. He says food bank hampers are generally filled with products nobody else wants that exacerbate health problems like diabetes obesity and heart disease that are already higher among low-income populations. “I think one of the problems with food banks is they are linked with big corporate food. That’s where they get their food from” he says. “So much of the corporate connection to the food banking world is fat sugar and salt. The food is not terribly healthy.”

He is quick to add that he is not looking for a “bun fight” with food banks he is simply advocating for a different kind of system.

“I think any food banker would say that providing food charity isn’t solving anything…. Certainly the work that we’re doing is in no way intended to villainize food banks. I think what we’re trying to do or encourage people to do or inspire people to do — or however you want to frame that — is to channel that compassion and care that is so prevalent in the food bank response… into a more progressive project that isn’t about the transaction. It’s about using the power of food to create power and health.”


In Calgary McAra is well aware of the work Saul has been doing over the years saying he keeps an eye on other food banks and is always looking for fresh ideas. He met with Saul last year when a CFCC delegation paid a visit to the city.

McAra’s response to the idea of opening a community food centre in Calgary is blunt: “It’s already here.”

James McAra. Photos by Josh Naud

He explains that the Calgary Food Bank distributes food directly to 200-plus partner agencies — from smaller programs like Sunshine Family Services and the Sheriff King Home to larger organizations like the Mustard Seed and the Calgary Drop-In Centre — so they can spend their time and money doing community work. And he doesn’t just wait for agencies to come to him — McAra seeks out opportunities to help. For example he says summer is coming and children’s programs may need juice boxes and nut-free snacks on hand so he asks around to find out who needs what and can then approach his suppliers and request those specific items.

“What we’ve focused on in the last 15 years and very much so in the last five has been meeting the needs of agencies” says McAra. “And the key behind that is those agencies have the programs that are needed within a community and they’re specific to the community from which they’re coming…. We go to them and say “What do you need from food and if we can get that food to you… then can you shift your money from food purchasing to program purchasing?’”

The Calgary Food Bank also started a referral process in 2002 to help direct people to those agencies. McAra says the people who come to the food bank aren’t there just because they’re hungry — they may not earn enough income to cover their expenses they may have lost their job they may be struggling with addiction or a mental illness. So he explains once someone’s immediate need for food is covered staff talk to them about their situation and help match them with the appropriate service.

McAra also disputes Saul’s claim that the food in the hampers is unhealthy. In fact he says the Calgary Food Bank’s emergency hampers meet Canada’s food guide requirements providing seven or more days of food that covers the entire dietary spectrum. The food bank also accommodates people with special dietary needs such as offering a Celiac hamper.

“When you look at what Nick refers to as the food bank I think that’s a very naive view and we’re tarring all food banks in Canada with the same brush” McAra says. “…It’s not just look here’s some food and you have to take it.”

He doesn’t flinch when he confirms that 85 per cent of the food comes from industry — “should the food go in the garbage?” — but McAra says Calgary’s hampers are not full of food nobody else wants. He says the food comes from growers and wholesale food distribution centres and a typical hamper might have cereal beans rice fresh produce and even milk — the same food he says people are buying at the grocery store. In most cases he explains the food bank receives food that doesn’t have a long enough shelf life for industry which generally requires more than three weeks.

“So they donate it to us today we now have 21 days — and it’s good food because it’s designed to be picked up at the store taken home put in your fridge” he says.

As a result of that partnership McAra says the food industry saves waste and the cost of disposing with it while the food bank is able to provide good food.

That’s not to say that McAra believes this system is the answer to food insecurity. He is in the trenches with the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative which deals with the root causes of hunger and the Calgary Food Committee which examines all aspects of food-related issues from growing to distribution. Ultimately he says he would like the community to get rid of the need for the food bank altogether but he doesn’t see that happening in the near future.

“Until the individuals because I do look at it as individuals and policy makers gain the intestinal fortitude to make some very difficult decisions the food bank will be here…. But at the point that we can again become a community I can envision a point where the food bank moves to a position of if you fall through the cracks we’ve got you — and that’s an extreme that’s a very small percentage of our community that do that.”


Dr. McIntyre a U of C professor and Canadian Institutes of Health Research chair in gender and health says the basic definition of food insecurity is a lack of access to food because of financial constraints. “And (it) is certainly not made better by the kind of ways we give food or trivial amounts of food or other types of issues which come with the food banking world” she adds.

In fact McIntyre argues community food centres could actually do more harm than good.

“There’s something wrong there because the way they get their big fat donations is this kind of marketing that they’re actually doing something in the name of food insecurity and they’re doing something in the name of the poor and they’re doing something in the name of their part of the social safety net…” she says. “So yeah it’s not benign it’s not like it’s busy work — this work is actually sort of harming people’s understanding it’s distracting and it’s really deflecting what are the real issues.”

McIntyre says those issues relate to poverty — people on social assistance single mothers the unemployed and especially the working poor. “The vast majority of people who are food insecure — and I’ve done a whole paper on food insecurity in the labour force — these are individuals and families that are often (working) two jobs working multiple jobs very high work stress and they’re still food insecure because they don’t have enough money. So we have to really regulate those types of issues and that’s minimum wage that’s labour protection other types of strategies.”

McIntyre says there already is a simple proven solution to food insecurity: the guaranteed income supplement and old age pension has fixed the problem in Canada’s senior population. She explains that a study shows that if you take a very low income individual between age 60 to 65 with a 22 per cent food insecurity rate all they have to do is turn 65 and their rate of food insecurity drops to 11 per cent. “So a 50 per cent reduction of a very important health problem just because of an insurance scheme we developed some years ago that is continuing to show the greatest success of any other social protection” she adds.

McIntyre says this model could “absolutely” be used in the general population given current resources and is currently being examined by a powerful Conservative senator among others. “There’s an awful lot of attractiveness to the notion of this kind of insurance scheme that simplifies all the bureaucracy and just changes what is the actual minimum income and completely solves the problem…. I think we are seeing a lot of momentum. In the meantime as I say I think we have to stop the nonsense of how to build a better food bank.”

Instead McIntyre suggests people should give their support to organizations like the Calgary Poverty Reduction Initiative which she says is doing great work. Perhaps surprisingly she also expresses respect for McAra who she has worked with on the initiative and says she has even donated to the food bank because she believes he is doing his best to put himself out of work. “Our Calgary Food Bank is going to do a good job be efficient move a lot of product… but McAra will never ever ever suggest that he shouldn’t be out of the business — and that’s the ultimate aim is to get out of the business.”

Saul is prepared for criticism and unlikely to be deterred. In fact he thinks the timing for CFCC is perfect due to all the interest in food right now — from concerns about food safety content and labelling to the slow food local food and sustainable food movements. He plans to link that middle-class interest to the food struggles of lower income communities in a place where people can come together to fight for those things. “Because those are the things that are ultimately going to ensure that everyone is at the table eating good food” he says.

What would McAra’s reaction be if CFCC gets the funding and the support to open a location in Calgary?

“You know what? Go for it. If it sits somewhere and you think that’s how you want to spend your money I’m not going to say no” he says.

“I think the larger picture of if you were given a whole bunch of money to drop something in the first question would become did you not do your homework? There’s a whole bunch of this happening here. Would your money not have gone to a better place by engaging in the things that are already here that already address very similar pieces to what you’re purporting for your franchise?”