During the pandemic, there has been a massive outpouring of support for food banks in Alberta. But there’s a reluctance to use them and policy experts think the solution involves a more systemic approach.
“Only a small fraction of people who are food insecure in Canada ever show up in the food charity system,” said Valerie Tarasuk, a professor at the University of Toronto’s department of nutritional science.
Tarasuk also heads a research program called PROOF, which looks to understand food insecurity in Canada; this program determined that only one-fifth of the roughly five million Canadians who identify as food insecure use food banks.
People tend to pursue other means of solving their insecurity first. This can include borrowing money from family or friends, missing bill or mortgage payments, even selling their possessions.
Stigma surrounding food banks
Samantha Miller, a 25-year-old Calgarian with a neurological disability that inhibits her mobility, has started using some unique methods of combating her lack of food.
In an email with the Calgary Journal, Miller pointed to her great grandmother’s biscuit recipe and a mashed potato pancake recipe as being some of her favourites.
Miller also highlighted how her husband works a very physically intense job and, since she is unemployed because of her disability, she often eats less than is comfortable in order to make sure that he has lunch the next day.
“I’ve gotten into looking at recipes from the Great Depression specifically because they’re such a good resource for making things cheaply,” she says.
“It’s not something I thought much about when I started doing it as it felt like the natural thing to do. I definitely think about it now, but I don’t have any plans of stopping until there’s better access to food,” Miller writes in an email to the Calgary Journal.
An “unexpected, nice side effect” to Miller’s food insecurity journey was that it gave her another connection to her Métis roots.
“There’s a lot of history of poverty in my cultural background. So there’s things like bannock that are super easy to make; it’s just like flour and water.”
As people like Miller try to be creative and solve their food needs, it seems food banks are suffering from an image problem. Miller hardly even considered them an option.
Arianna Scott, the chief executive officer of Food Banks Alberta, says, “People envision food banks for what they were 40 years ago. Back then you went to the door, got in a lineup, then you were handed what you were handed. That’s not how food banks function today- it is done by appointment in a lot of cases so that there is a confidentiality built around it. It is a conversation.”
This trend towards increased privacy is one way that Alberta food banks are trying to tackle the stigma associated with them.
As someone who doesn’t use food banks, Miller says, “I think a lot of it is just culturally based shame. In terms of finances in general, but also it makes me worried that people will think that I’m not a capable adult.”
“When I think about people who are food insecure, I think about people who I see that are a lot worse off than me. And so then it’s kind of embarrassing because I know I don’t have it as bad as I could,” says Miller.
The sentiment that others may need food services more is one that Scott runs into often. “People get in a mindset of, there’s someone out there who needs the food bank more than me, so I don’t want to take away from that.”
What is the government trying to do about it?
Because of the pandemic, the federal and provincial governments and private donors pumped much more money into these services over the course of the last two years even though the research says that this isn’t much more than a band-aid for the problem.
According to Revenue Canada, Food Banks Alberta, an association that represents 108 food banks across the province, increased its total revenue from ~$1.5-million in 2019 to around $10- million in 2020.
The increase in funds came from an even mix of government grants and private donations.
Scott says that the extra funds were directly distributed. “We didn’t do any kind of application process with our members. Just as they have an allotment with food, they have an allotment level with money.”
As the pandemic progressed into 2021, “we had several food banks say to us, ‘you know what, we’re good.’ Please give the funds to someone who needs them more,” says Scott.
Scott specified that the unused funds were used to help support transportation of food across the province.
“We use this fund to pay for transportation of goods to the nearest [distribution] hub location and for food banks who are not near any of our hubs we provide transportation subsidies. Ultimately, we use this fund to help to make transportation more affordable for our members.”
As of March 9, there was only $4,000 of COVID-19-relief money left to be allocated.
‘We know that we’re not the solution’
While this outpouring of money is helpful for the individuals who utilize food banks, it’s important to remember that, according to PROOF’s research, most people who are food insecure don’t use those services.
It’s also important to remember the value that food banks have in alleviating the worst of the food crisis. “We (food bankers) know that we’re not the solution. But we are an important part of the puzzle,” says Scott.
Tarasuk acknowledges this duality of food insecurity but would still like to see a push away from the dependency on food banks. “It’s just not a big enough change in their lives, right? A bag of food doesn’t change the fact that you don’t have enough money to pay your rent and to feed your kids.”
Instead of putting money into the food bank system, Tarasuk would rather see those funds go towards social changes that would benefit the lowest income bracket of the population.
“One group that is almost certain to be food insecure is people reliant on social assistance, particularly welfare, and that relates to the fact that those benefits are so low,” says Tarasuk.
Another aspect to consider is the dramatic rise in food prices right now. The purchasing power of the population is shrinking and this is doubly true for those whose jobs and pensions aren’t indexed for inflation.
This dwindling ability to buy food has forced people like Miller to turn to cheaper versions of food which comes with its own set of issues like feeding into the stigma she feels about using social services.
“It’s like okay, now I’m also fat but I’m still hungry. So people are going to judge me if I try to go to food banks because of that too,” she says.
Even Scott identified the nutritional quality of their food hampers dropping, saying “the donated food we receive is all non-perishable for the most part and that has a high cost of sodium and other problematic additives.”
Donating to food banks makes people feel good but the work of systemic social support is something citizens can advocate to their politicians for.
According to Tarasuk the best course of action for anyone to take at this point is to “pick up the phone or turn on your email and express your views to your elected officials.”