Food Bank Users and “Abusers”: 2010 Summer Survey Challenges Patron Stereotypes

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Photo courtesy of Richard Dingwall

Lucas and I have spent much of the past two months at EFHP sitting down with patrons to complete our annual summer survey. We were able to conduct 120 interviews – about 13 more than last year – which will be compiled into a report in the coming months. When first assigned this task, I was worried that weeks and weeks of asking questions such as “why do you not always have enough to eat”?, would begin to wear down on my optimism and faith in my community. Instead, I came out of this project enlightened about the many strong, proactive and hopeful spirits I connected with this summer.

Throughout this project, specifically when asking patrons the question: “what could someone do to improve your situation?”, I kept recalling an article I read on my first day here. In this 2007 National Post article, “Food Banks are Ridiculous”, lawyer Karen Selick argues that the steady growth in Canadian food bank usage since 2001 stems from the exploitation of emergency food programs by patrons who see no point in revising their budgets or seeking employment when this necessity is available for free. She states: “Canadians shouldn’t accept guilt when anti-poverty activists hint that the existence of food banks proves some moral deficiency in the economic system”; to her, food banks are a band-aid to the problem of a growing, apathetic poor.

Such a view is not particularly cutting-edge; many times when I’ve explained my job to peers or neighbours, they’re curious as to whether most of EFHP’s food goes to people who actually need it.  But our survey results illuminate that many patrons want to break their cycle of food bank use, and place the responsibility for doing so not on the government or non-profit organizations, but on themselves.

As Lucas will further comment on, an optimistic 80 out of the 120 patrons surveyed believed that their circumstances will improve in the next year.  Our last question of the survey asks them to elaborate on how they expect this improvement to come about.

A little over half of our those surveyed are receiving forms of social assistance, such as Ontario Works or funds from the Ontario Disability Support Program, while a smaller chunk of about 29% are working full time, part time, or for temp agencies.  When asked about the source of their food insecurity, over 61% label insufficient fixed incomes or wages as the culprit. So by Karen Selick’s argument, many patrons should answer our last question by suggesting increases in emergency food, social assistance, or wages, hoping the economic situation will change to accommodate them without any effort of their own. Some of them should even express contentedness with their current situation and the money they’re “saving” on food. Nevertheless, only eight of those surveyed requested increased social assistance, and six requested higher wages.  In fact, this last question drew blank stares from many of our patrons.

Around 22 of our patrons had no answer to this question at all; for many of them, the idea that someone else, whether a level of government or individual, could improve their situation, was not something that had ever crossed their minds. Most patrons took several minutes to answer, having to mull over a question they had rarely or never considered. A dozen of them were strong believers that it’s up to them to improve their own situations, while others expressed their plans to access more community resources for improvement. Another patron who is currently going through nursing even commented that her current use of emergency food doesn’t mean she isn’t on the path to a brighter future.  Indeed, while wages remain low and full time work scarce, the number of those surveyed with employment has increased in the last year; one optimistic patron even exclaimed; “I helped myself! I got a job! Now to tackle debts.”

When asked how we could improve our program, some patrons expressed that it didn’t matter to them, as they hoped not to come here in the future. Only about five patrons suggested that we increase our hamper limit for households (while many others suggested we increase the amount of one or two items to meet their nutritional needs). Others shared that they hope for a day when they can shop and choose their own food; one even commented that such choice makes her “feel human.”

Contrary to Karen Selick’s stance, it appears that these food bank users are not abusers, but individuals taking it upon themselves to regain some choice and control over their lives in this time of financial insecurity. Indeed, 76% of those surveyed have been using the services of food banks for less than 5 years, matching the 2008-to-present trend of economic recession in the KW area. Following the philosophy of the Emergency Food Hamper Program, many of the patrons seem to understand that we are providing a hand-up, and not a hand out, when we pack them a hamper.

The most poignant moments for me during the surveys were when patrons shared their appreciation for the time I spent with them, even though they were the ones helping us. It seemed like they really benefited from a friendly, non-judgmental conversation with someone amidst their daily errands and financial struggles. Perhaps what these patrons really need are not simply constant reminders that they need to re-budget or re-configure their lives to avoid dependence on the food bank, but some appreciation and encouragement for what they have already worked hard to do to pull themselves out of their tough spot.

Admittedly, we do have patrons who are forced to rely on us for an extended period of time.  But arguments like Karen Selick’s, rather than unveiling a problem, are simply part of it.  As long as we continue to judge and blame food bank users, we continue to ignore their resilient spirits and their potential for building a better future for themselves.

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