For food banks, recession still hits hard

  • April 26, 2010
Food BankTORONTO - Report On Business declares the recession is over. Down at the food bank it’s just getting up a head of steam.

“There are more people going to food banks and less food being donated, both by individuals as well as our corporate partners,” Ontario Association of Food Banks executive director Adam Spence told The Catholic Register. “Those two items come together to make it a very challenging time for food banks.”

Province-wide Spence has seen food bank use climb 10 per cent a month through the first three months of 2010. Near the end of 2009 the Canadian Association of Food Banks reported the largest year-over-year increase in food bank use on record.

Second Harvest, a Toronto food bank that specializes in fresh food gathered from hotels, restaurants, caterers and other sources, reports a 20- to 30-per-cent increase in demand so far this year.

“When we do our annual planning we account for a two- to five-per-cent increase,” said Second Harvest spokesperson Tonia Krauser. “We certainly didn’t account for a 20- to 30-per-cent increase.”

At the pointy end of the food bank system, where desperate people get their groceries, Sr. Margaret Feeley and Msgr. Brad Massman at St. Paul’s Basilica have seen the numbers increase. They’re getting as many as 60 extra calls per month.

More and more the parish has to make up the difference between deliveries from the centralized Daily Bread Food Bank and actual demand in the neighbourhood.

So far the parishioners at St. Paul’s, which sits dead centre of the poorest postal code in Toronto, have never come up short.

“The well off people of the parish worship and live with the poor,” said Massman. “They know they’re good people.”

The Ontario Association of Food Banks has been casting about for creative solutions, particularly solutions that might deliver healthier, fresh food. They’ve started to partner with farmers.

“The concept of gleaning is as old as the Bible itself,” said Spence.

In the book of Leviticus (Lev. 23:22) God commands farmers not to harvest all that they plant and to allow poor access to their fields to glean or gather what remains.

That’s something Mike Whittamore, owner of Whittamore’s Farm in the northeast corner of Toronto, has been doing for 15 years with the Scarborough Hunger Coalition.

Whittamore’s 90 hectares of fruits and vegetables are a gleaner’s delight, given the non-expert, less-than-thorough picking the fields get from city families who come to the farm for a fun day out with the kids.

For Whittamore opening up the farm to busloads of city-bound poor people at the end of the season is an obvious and concrete way to meet the reality of hunger.

“It’s been an ongoing issue for hundreds of years. Politicians pay a lot of lip service to it, but it doesn’t seem like we get a whole lot done,” said Whittamore.

Boosting contributions to the food bank could be easier if the federal government allowed corporate donors a tax write off for food they contribute, said Krauser of Second Harvest.

But Liberal MP and former Daily Bread executive director Gerard Kennedy is leery of any system that would transform gifts into a bottom-line proposition for companies.

Once accountants and tax lawyers are involved, the system could end up a convenient dumping ground for stuff nobody will buy and a tax-system cushion for profit margins.

More fundamentally, direct government funding to food banks would amount to an admission of defeat in the war against extreme poverty and marginalization, said Kennedy. It would turn the emergency system for short-term needs into a permanent, government-funded system for feeding the poor.

“I don’t think Canadians have given up hope,” said Kennedy. “I don’t think Canadians see people using food banks as people who should have some permanent second-rate access to food.”

A real poverty reduction plan that funds social welfare, patches the holes in the social safety net and addresses the lack of affordable housing would do a lot more to shorten the period people typically depend on food banks and get them back into the regular economy.

“No one should think that compassion is not part of the equation,” said Kennedy. “But I would rather see compassion put into the official (welfare) system than the official system trying to acquire it by buying into food banks as a discount way of feeding people.”

Kennedy doesn’t want to see food banks as a permanent and final solution to poverty and marginalization.

“We should worry first that anybody has to beg for food in the first place. If our threshold of caring is only that they don’t starve we’re in a bad place.”

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