© 2007  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the November 20, 2007 issue of the National Post.
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Food Banks Are Ridiculous

Food bank use has grown by 14.3 percent since 2001, according to the Ontario Association of Food Banks’ recently released Ontario Hunger Report 2007.  In Trenton (my backyard), it’s growing at the astonishing rate of 10 to 15 percent a month, says the local newspaper. 

Surprise, surprise.  Did the people who run food banks never hear the expression, “Build it and they will come”?  

It’s really simple: give stuff away for free and there will be takers. Every merchandiser knows this.  That’s why stores offer two-for-one sales, free gifts to the first 50 customers, and so on.

Food banks have actually helped create the very problem they claim to be remedying—people running out of grocery money before the next paycheque or welfare cheque—by helping eliminate the stigma that used to accompany begging for food. 

It’s mortifying admitting to people you know—family, friends or neighbours—that you can’t afford groceries this week.  But with a food bank middleman between you and the anonymous donors, nobody who actually knows you needs to know your predicament.  

There’s also the comfort of seeing the many other food bank users. You needn’t be ashamed—you’re not alone in this plight.   

And food bank volunteers try to be non-judgmental, to eliminate users’ embarrassment as much as possible.  In the words of Ontario’s Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank: “We work to dispel the societal attitude that people who access a food bank are ‘not good enough’ and are ‘less than’ everyone else. Our goal is to have everyone walking out feeling better than when they came in.”

So once you’ve made that first trip, and walked out feeling good, it’ll be even easier to go back. In fact, you can start revising your budget with that in mind. Spend a little more on non-necessities and let the food bank fill in the gap with tuna, rice and peanut butter.  It makes perfect economic sense. 

Food banks are actually a ridiculous idea.  In a country devastated by war or natural disaster, it might make sense for charities to bring donated foodstuffs to local relief centres and hand them out.  In Canada, it makes no sense whatsoever.  Food is everywhere.  Supermarkets plan it that way.  They build their stores where people live, and keep their shelves fully stocked.  All a hungry person in Canada needs in order to fill his belly is cash—something that can be donated to him far more efficiently than food can be.

It’s just plain wasteful for food banks to operate parallel to the existing food distribution system.  The rent, utilities, insurance and all the other expenses involved in retailing food have already been paid once by the supermarkets before donors purchase items to donate.  When the food bank incurs its own expenses for rent, utilities, insurance, etc., it adds an unnecessary layer of costs to the process of getting food to consumers.  

Even shelving costs are duplicated.  A supermarket receives whole cartons of the same item. Clerks can shelve everything in minimal time, reducing labour costs.  But food bank donations are disorderly jumbles of everything.  It takes additional labour to collect, sort and shelve it.  Even volunteers’ labour still represents a hidden cost. The shelving task has already been done once.  Why undo it, then re-do it?  It would make more sense for volunteers to spend their time earning income at their usual occupations, then donating the money to poor people to spend at supermarkets.

Donors and volunteers are wasting another opportunity too: the income tax reduction they’d get by donating cash to a charity, instead of canned goods or labour. 

Food banks are inefficient even from the user’s perspective.  Most users get only a portion of their groceries from the food bank. They still have to shop at supermarkets for the rest.  So they, too, are forced to make an extra trip—probably to a location that’s less convenient for them, since there are fewer food banks than supermarkets.

The illogic of food banks is so obvious that only one explanation makes sense. Charities can’t simply collect cash and give grocery money to the needy because donors know it wouldn’t all be spent on necessities. Some would be spent on cigarettes, booze or bingo .  Years ago, when I prepared budget statements for clients on legal aid, I was astonished at how much some poor people spent on such things. 

Middle-class or wealthy Canadians shouldn’t accept guilt when anti-poverty activists hint that the existence of food banks proves some moral deficiency in the economic system.  Far from it.  Food banks simply conceal problems that are taboo to discuss these days.


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       December 16, 2007