Finally, an end in sight for food banks (as we know them)


Food banks and soup kitchens are always big news during this ‘season of giving’. This is when the biggest food drives of the year usually happen, and we are surrounded by appeals to help the hungry and homeless by donating some ‘non-perishable food items’.

It’s hard to find fault with this, unless you are a serious scrooge, right? Not necessarily.

As important as it is to support the charities, non-profits and community groups that doing this crucial work, it’s equally important to put the concept of hunger, food banks and soup kitchens into proper context, and to examine the shortfalls of our current collective response to hunger and poverty.

The main point that I often use is that food banks were created as a temporary measure; they were never meant to be an institution in our society, and as such, the conversation on how to eliminate the need for food banks is long overdue.

The question I have had, and have been working on as one of my main goals in life right now, is: what is the new model for alleviating hunger that will not only fill empty stomachs, but also eliminate the conditions that cause hunger?

Recently I’ve stumbled upon a concept pioneered by one of Canada’s oldest food banks, The Stop Community Food Centre, in the Davenport West Community of Toronto. The Stop provides “frontline services to our community, including a drop-in, food bank, perinatal program, community action program, bake ovens and markets, community cooking, community advocacy, sustainable food systems education and urban agriculture, a sustainable food production and education centre which houses a state-of-the-art greenhouse, food systems education programs, a sheltered garden, our Global Roots Garden, community bake oven and compost demonstration centre.”

The Stop, which still maintains a food bank, has created the concept of the Community Food Centre, which many have been quoted as saying that every city should have. And that is precisely the mission that The Stop has set out to support.

I came across this concept through a PDF I found online that reported on this model, and how to replicate it.

I wanted to share a few select paragraphs that put into words some thoughts I’ve had about soup kitchens, food banks and the mainstream food security movement.

“In describing hunger, Janet Poppendieck (1998, 5) writes that it has becomes both “a symptom and a cause of our society’s failure to face up to and deal with the erosion of equality.” She views charity as society’s moral safety valve, which allows people to relieve, through donations and volunteering, the discomfort that poverty evokes — at the expense of pursuing more radical solutions. As she also notes, food bank recipients report that these charity responses strip them of their dignity and do little to solve their longer-term challenges. Other researchers have criticized charitable responses as both ineffectual and depoliticizing in the face of hunger (Tarasuk and Eakin 2003).”

“The concept of community food security has gone through many changes, but it is generally defined as “a situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (Hamm and Bellows 2003). As this definition illustrates, the idea of community food security constitutes an explicit critique of mainstream definitions of food security, by not only stating that people need adequate amounts of food but also including criteria for the system that produces food and the manner in which people obtain food.”

“Patricia Allen (2008, 159) points out that many local food initiatives, such as farmers’ markets and Community Shared Agriculture projects, have inadequately addressed questions of social justice. She notes, “Without a direct focus on justice issues, alternative agri-food efforts may only create marginal, safe spaces for the privileged that may simply serve as a bleeder valve for the dominant agri-food system.”

These are the kinds of critiques that have put me on the path I am now; to get involved with the creation of models that expand the definition of community food security, and that build bridges between food security, anti-poverty and social justice. I’m just starting to learn about the Community Food Centre model, but I am excited about what I have read.

Here’s more from the Stop’s website:
We believe that healthy food is a basic human right. We recognize that the ability to access healthy food is often related to multiple issues and not just a result of low income. At The Stop, we’ve taken a holistic approach to achieve real change in our community’s access to healthy food.

We strive to meet basic food needs and, at the same time, foster opportunities for community members to build mutual support networks, connect to resources and find their voices on the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.

A key tenet of The Stop’s approach is that community members must be involved in making decisions about how our organization operates. When program participants are involved — as front-line volunteers, program advisory committee members, gardeners or cooks — the stigma associated with receiving free food is often diminished or erased. While our food access programming helps confront the issue of hunger, it also creates opportunities for community members to forge their own responses to hunger. We believe this approach will end the way charity divides us as a society into the powerful and the powerless, the self-sufficient and the shamed. At The Stop, we are creating a new model to fight poverty and hunger: a community food centre.”

The Stop is also involved in lobbying for systemic change (something that charities are actually not legally allowed to do), and empower people to become advocates and activists for systemic change. They realize that community-based projects are invaluable, but that the government still has an obligation to make fundamental changes that will eliminate poverty.

And here are some related articles to read:

About the charity model

Beyond the Food Bank

About The Community Food Centre Model

Food bank gets users growing their meals

Community food centre coming to nearby Perth, Ontario

Better Than a Food Bank

The Stop Community Food Centre: An Introduction (videos)

Support grows for community food centre

Charity begins in the kitchen

Eating on welfare

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