Saturday, July 30, 2011

Will Closing Food Banks Help End Hunger?

Image: Walmart Stores via Flickr CC

by Jeff Nield, Vancouver, British Columbia

Food banks first rose to prominence in the 1980's as an emergency measure to stave off hunger during a time of recession and high unemployment. While often very prominent in the community, these institutions are increasingly coming under fire from food activists. Some go so far as to say that if we are truly going to end hunger in North America, food banks should be closed.

Speaking from a Canadian perspective, Queen's University Professor Elaine Power explains this position in The Globe and Mail.

It's time to close our food banks. I've reached this conclusion after 18 years of researching food, hunger and poverty; volunteering at food banks; serving on a food bank board; and recently taking part in a challenge where I ate from a typical food bank hamper for three days.

Power suggests that food banks are incapable of ending hunger partially because people who could be considered hungry don't use them and they can only supply what is donated, which is often insufficient both in nutritional value and volume. Much of the food that is donated comes from corporations that may have motivations beyond feeding the hungry.

Food banks are good for corporations, especially food corporations. They can use food banks to offload edible food they can't sell, then advertise themselves as caring businesses. And holding corporate-wide food drives builds company morale. None of these corporate benefits are problematic in themselves, but they mean that corporations have a vested interest in the status quo.

Herb Barbolet, from Simon Fraser University's Centre for Sustainable Community Development, backs up Powers's claim.

A lot of the food donated by corporations is unsellable. It may contain too high proportion of salt or transfats or other ingredients that health conscious eaters don't want. Or, it may be close to being stale-dated. It should be unconscionable to give junk food and garbage to hungry people - and make them stand in line for it, at that.

Both Powers and Barbolet suggest deeper problem stems from the psychological effect that food banks have on our communities and how governments react to the problem. "The social safety net is underfunded so that senior governments can spend more on their priorities," says Barbolet. Powers points to the complex and intertwined nature of hunger and poverty issues in her conclusion.

Giving food to those who are hungry is a simple response that everyone supports. Tackling poverty means wrestling with diverse ideas about causes and solutions. It's time to begin that political conversation. But first we have to remove the obstacle that food banks have become. more story at