Getting out of the business of food banks

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Though sometimes when I’m working at the front desk it feels like a customer service job, we often remind ourselves here that we are not a business. When our numbers go up, it is not cause for celebration, but a time to reflect on the root causes of poverty in our community and why the amount of people who need food assistance increases every year. We are constantly looking at new ideas that could eliminate poverty, and one of those is to simply give people the money they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life. As a solution it might seem overly simple, but it really could work. As we’ve discussed here many times, when people have an adequate income money is saved elsewhere in social systems.

Today’s post is a guest blog, written by Sean Geobey, on the topic of eliminating poverty—and eliminating food banks–by giving people adequate income. Sean is a PhD Candidate in Environment and Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo and a graduate fellow with the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. His research focuses on social finance and its role in creating social innovation.

A food hamper from a few years ago for a family of three.

A food hamper from a few years ago for a family of three.

I am fortunate enough that I don’t rely on a food bank for my meals. I go to a grocery store near my home to pick up a few bags of fresh veggies, milk and meat when I’m running low. The hours are always convenient, and I can choose the right mix of food for my needs over the next few days.

Although I rarely think about it, having this freedom means a lot to me. It means that I can schedule my food around my work, social and family life. It means that I’m entrusted with the choice of setting my own priorities about what I put in my body. It means dignity.

Having a basic income that provides everyone in our community with enough money to meet their basic needs would extend this dignity to everyone. A basic income is a guaranteed minimum level of income support that everyone would receive. It would not be means-tested, eliminating the need for intrusive, demeaning and punitive interventions by social workers. The idea of a basic income has historically received support from across the political spectrum, including those on the right like Milton Friedman, Robert Stanfield and Hugh Segal to those on the political left like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ed Broadbent.

Food insecurity is a result of poverty and, however complex the causes of poverty are for an individual or family, an adequate income is part of the solution. However difficult the other circumstances are for someone living in poverty, the dignity that comes from being able to decide what you eat is deeply empowering. Beyond its individual empowerment, when people living in poverty see their incomes rise it has a social impact as well. When I choose to shop at one grocery store or farmer’s market rather than another I am sending a signal. This signal might be that I prefer one outlet’s hours, food selection, location or prices over another, and if many of my neighbours have similar preferences than this will lead to those locations I choose growing and strengthening those aspects that I appreciate most.

All in all, this food system works pretty well at ensuring I don’t go hungry at night. However, there are many people in our community who aren’t able to access this system. Instead they rely on a parallel food system that doesn’t offer the people who use it the same choice, voice and dignity that the mainstream food system does. This is the system of food banks, soup kitchens and other supports for people who cannot always afford a meal.

The selection offered in a food bank hamper is limited. When the hamper ends up being the same as what a person would have picked up at a grocery story it is by accident more than design. However, when the incomes of people living in poverty are limited the price is right even if the food basket isn’t. Moreover, we know this system isn’t working because every year more people have to access it—the amount of people accessing food assistance in Canada has increased consistently over the past 25 years.

In the food security business markets work remarkably well most of the time in adapting to what people want to buy—for example, when people have the option of not using food banks (because their income is adequate to buy the food they need) they don’t use food banks. If a grocery store offered the same lack of selection and inconvenient locations as food banks they would quickly go out of business because people would choose other food options.

Of course, people living in poverty often choose the food bank because they can’t afford to go other places. The problem with food insecurity in our community isn’t a problem of inadequate infrastructure or a weak distribution network. The problem is income. Simply put, the root cause of food insecurity is poverty, and the solution to poverty is a higher income.

We cannot hope to solve food insecurity without putting money into the pockets of people living in poverty, money that can then be used to buy the food they choose. Money that would put food banks out of business.

 -Sean Geobey

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