The question box: why do we only give six hampers per year?

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In previous blogs about our question box we have answered the questions “why do you give out expired food?” and “how do you get the food you give out?” This week, I’ll talk about why we only give 6 hampers per year.

Last week, we found the following note in our question box:

I use the food bank a lot, and I don’t think 6 hampers a year is enough. I appreciate it every time as I don’t come unless I need it. But sometimes the people who pack my hamper don’t do it correctly and you get nothing. But thank you.

Thanks to whoever wrote us this note—it’s important to us to hear honest remarks about whether or not we are meeting people’s needs when they come to us for help. There are a few significant parts to this note: first, why we only give six hampers per year, and second, why sometimes our hampers are smaller than other times. Today I’m going to tackle the issue of why we only give out six hampers per year.

Our hamper packing area

As people who come to our program know, we have a limit of six hampers per year, or 12 for people over 65 (Nadir talks more about the intake process and our limits here). This theoretical limit (more on this wording later) exists because of our capacity—we already give out 140 hampers per day on average, and in the winter we regularly give out over 200 hampers per day. The limit of six is a compromise between giving enough to cover family emergencies and being able to distribute food fairly between all the families who come in. We are an emergency service, and six hampers per year could feasibly cover two or three financial emergencies—for example, if someone has lost their job and is waiting for Employment Insurance or Ontario Works, a few hampers will get them through the weeks where they’re not receiving any income.

All that being said, we call our limit a theoretical limit. Although we encourage people to try other resources such as the Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul churches, once someone has used their fifth and sixth hampers we won’t turn them away empty-handed. We do give some people seven or eight hampers per year, and in some cases where someone may have a serious illness or disability which makes it difficult for them to access other food distribution centres, we have given over that amount. In August we made 156 exceptions, meaning of all the hampers we packed last month, 156 were for families who had already had six hampers. Not every family gets their full amount of hampers—the average amount of hampers we give out to a family is three. This may give you an idea of the diversity of situations in which people find themselves; while some people need our program persistently, others we see only once every few years when they’ve hit a rough patch. We need to be flexible to accommodate the different needs of people we see; while some people can get by using us only a few times, others may have things going on that mean they need us more than our limits allow.

Having flexible limits is especially important for us given that we know how limited income is for people on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program (OW and ODSP). According to a 2011 report released by the 25 in 5 network, called “Common Ground: a strategy for moving forward on poverty reduction,” current rates of OW are lower in real dollars than when Mike Harris’ government cut them to just $520 per month for a single person. $520 in 1995, when adjusted for inflation, would be $716 in 2011 Canadian dollars, yet in 2011 a single person on OW received just $599 per month. People living on social assistance are increasingly constrained financially because the amount they receive isn’t tied to inflation. Essentially this means that as the cost of living gradually increases, the amount they earn per month stagnates. Unfortunately, it is very hard to live a healthy life and buy nutritious food when living on this income, as we’ve talked about here.

So, given that we only have a limited capacity for storing and distributing food, yet we know that people on social assistance have an extremely limited income, we need to strike a compromise. We use our limits and our food quotas (which determine how much of each item people get on a given day, based on how much we have and how many hampers we predict we’ll do) to ensure we distribute food as equitably as we can between people who need it. In an ideal world we would have an unlimited nutritious food supply (or, alternatively, in an ideal world no one would need emergency food assistance,) but given our constraints we have determined that having the guideline of 6 hampers per year will allow us to distribute what we do have in the most fair manner. Right now, it’s the best we can do.

I hope this post is informative, especially about some of the shortcomings of our program. We try to do our best distributing the food we have fairly, so the most people can benefit. We see the limits and rules we have as grey areas, so we can always make exceptions based on a person’s unique situation. One of our guiding philosophies is that we operate based on trust, and another is that we don’t want to turn people away empty-handed with no other options. We also engage in advocacy efforts when we can, and at House of Friendship as a whole, we’re using advocacy to try to reduce poverty in Waterloo Region (like we wrote about here). Remember, food banks were started in the 1980s as a temporary measure during the recession. Since then, they’ve become permanent institutions. We believe that if we can work to reduce the root causes of poverty and housing insecurity, we can reduce (or eliminate) demand for our program.

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