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The Final Word on Food Banks?

Every week, in Britain and across the world, new food banks are opening their doors. Ballooning numbers of people in the US, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, inhabit tent cities and the OECD tells us that income disparity in industrialised nations has reached a thirty-year high.

What should we, the comfortably fed, do with this news? Devote our time and volunteer our services, donate more food, more real food – not just old tins of frankfurters lurking on the top shelf – or support the likes of the Gleaning Network? The nimble minded might suggest we should look at policy solutions; campaign harder for a rise in the minimum wage and more accurately targeted benefits & government support. But all of this takes time and while we’re talking, people are going hungry. Can’t we do something more meaningful?

After School Program - cr. Anna Prior Photography courtesy of The Stop - sm

Initially named after Stop 103 – Father Russell’s haven for the hungry in 1970’s Toronto, offering advocacy and support along with supper – The Stop, now a ‘Community Food Centre’ sees itself as a scalable model for alleviating poverty and hunger. Former director, Nick Saul, has just published his history of The Stop, a testament to why he sees the Community Food Centre model as a powerful way to combat hunger.

Saul, appointed in 1998 and driven by the belief that food banks are an inadequate response to hunger, transformed The Stop from an overstretched food bank into a community centre with a roster of programmes, including Healthy Beginnings, a drop-in group for young mums, gardening and cooking classes, as well as after-school workshops for young people. In the last few years, it’s added a sustainable food education centre, a café, a farmers’ market and YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), you guessed it, a land sharing scheme. They also knit together food access and skills building with advocacy. Take for example their Do the Math campaign, a challenge that brings attention to the inadequacy of social assistance rates, similar to FoodCycle’s Breadline Challenge, here in the UK.

Saul’s impassioned account of The Stop’s growth, in which he describes his and their users struggles with hunger, highlights the multiple links between health and environment, access and equity, farm and city, and poignantly sets personal narrative against the rise of the Occupy movement and the 2008 economic recession.

In the recession of the 1980s, food banks became widespread in North America. Designed to be an emergency stop-gap, they are no longer temporary organisations in either North America or the UK. With little sign of poverty and hunger lessening, these supposedly short-term band-aids have now become part of our international economy, political landscape and social fabric.

Greenhouse volunteer session sm - cr. Matt O'Sullivan courtesy of The StopSaul tells us that 40% of adults and 36% of the children who use food banks in Canada still go hungry once a week. As a result of shortages, many food banks turn people away and nearly 90% of food bank users are still forced into debt, in order to buy food and other necessities. A 2013 report from DEFRA suggests that in Britain, patterns are much the same.

Janet Poppendieck’s book Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement inform Saul’s response to these shortfalls. As a result, The Stop’s approach is one that appreciates the complexities of poverty and subsequently aims to meet people where they’re at, working to support users to individually determine the course of their own lives.

The strongest argument for food banks is they can be a useful redistribution tool. This is the message of the Global Food Bank Network (GFBN), which proposes that we can end hunger if we find better systems for collecting and redistributing excess food. It sits well alongside the FAO’s assessment that one billion people in the world go hungry while more than one billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year.

Good Food Market sm - cr. Matt O'Sullivan courtesy of The Stop

However, Saul argues that discussing the balance of world hunger in such terms ultimately causes food banks to treat food in the same way that their corporate partners do – as a commodity, largely removed from culture, health, community and the environment. This facilitates the institutionalisation of food banks as large corporations take them on as philanthropic projects, enforcing the notion that hunger is a matter for charity, which ultimately, deters attention from its root causes.

This is exemplified in the case of Campbell’s Nourish Campaign in Canada, which marketed its canned soups as nutritionally complete and ideal for donating to food banks. Campbell’s initial goal was to donate 200,000 cans of soup to food banks across Canada, a figure that would not succeed in nourishing the nation’s hungry for a week.

Despite good intentions, the bottom line is that food aid works well for brands. It gives them a philanthropic image, extends their reach and gives them the chance to build brand loyalty with new customers.

For the food banks this may ensure a consistent supply of food for hungry people, but it also robs the food banks of their autonomy. There is a point early in the book, where Saul turns away donations of vegetables ‘in near liquid state’, and insists that foodstuffs are culturally appropriate for disparate food bank users. It is the moment that Saul first rocks the boat, proposing a shift in thinking and disgruntling staff. He wants to give his food bank users a voice. Why should beggars not be choosers?

The thoughtfulness and spirit of this book reinforces the idea that hunger should not be considered in isolation. It is an issue intimately connected to poverty and inequality. It is this connectedness that becomes the driver of The Stop as it successfully harnesses the power of food’s interrelation with the environment and social relationships to create a thriving community centre.

The Stop book coverThe Stop demonstrates that it takes courage to valorise the long term, to invest time and energy addressing the causes of hunger further upstream. This is no bid to do away with emergency relief, but rather an unwillingness to relent to the permanency of a reliance on food banks, which should be only a measure of last resort.

Find out how Community Food Centres Canada is working to create Community Food Centre across Canada at www.cfccanada.ca and on Twitter @aplaceforfood.

The Stop was written by Nick Saul and his wife Andrea Curtis. It is published by Melville House.

For more on Janet Poppendieck, the rise in food bank use, the role of the State, and what the UK might learn from North America, listen to the Food Programme’s Food Poverty from 2011.

Feature image by Zoe Alexopoulos, in text images by Anna Prior and Matt O’Sullivan, all courtesy of The Stop.

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