Thursday, December 9, 2010

During the holidays many people want to give back to the community by volunteering or donating. In an effort to keep people in our neighbourhoods from going cold or hungry many schools, workplaces, and faith-based groups collect non-perishable food items or warm clothing for food banks and community service organizations.

Who is hungry in our society? Why do people experience poverty in Canada? What can we do to help? Here are some ideas.

What's a food bank?

Canadian food banks first opened as a temporary way to help people through hard times. Today they are an entrenched support service for many vulnerable people. Their goal is the elimination of hunger so that food banks can close forever. In addition to supplying people with 3-5 days' supplies of emergency food, some food banks assist community programs through food donations and training opportunities. Some do research to find long-term solutions.

Almost no Canadian food banks accept government funding, insisting that governments should focus their time and money on policy solutions to end poverty.

Who's hungry?

From 2008 to 2009, the number of food bank users in Canada increased by 18%. The number increased by 9% more between 2009 and 2010. This 27% increase is linked to the recession, and signals a disturbing trend towards more poverty and hunger in our prosperous country.

Especially vulnerable groups include children, seniors, the “working poor,” persons with disabilities, rural dwellers, and people on social assistance.

Did you know that less than 5% of 2009 Canadian food bank users were homeless? Homelessness is the most visible form of poverty in Canada, but hunger is widespread and largely hidden. In BC, lack of affordable housing is a big reason that even fully-employed people go hungry. In Vancouver it is common for people to put a disproportionately high percentage of their income towards housing (up to 80-85%, according to Cheryl Carline of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank), leaving little else for food, child care, diapers, toiletries, transit, or savings.

People with jobs make up the second largest group of food bank users. As our economy changes, well-paying jobs in industries like forestry or manufacturing are being replaced by retail and food service jobs that pay less and tend not to offer extended medical benefits or pension. Minimum wage has not increased since 2001, and many people with full-time jobs are unable to meet basic needs for themselves and their families. Unaffordable child care and inadequate social assistance rates are other big financial barriers for many families.

A sudden injury or serious illness could happen to anyone and can trigger a slide into poverty. A comparison between disability benefits and the realistic cost of living in Vancouver shows that benefits do not support an adequate quality of life. Thus, many persons with disabilities turn to food banks for support. If no policy improvements are made, we can expect a rise in food insecurity as Canada's population ages.

What should I donate?

Stick to healthy foods, avoiding ultra-processed or sugary items which are not nutritious. Avoid things that require added milk or eggs, including macaroni and cheese and certain canned soups, as these fresh foods can sometimes be scarce in low-income households. For insight into food bank users' perceptions of macaroni and cheese, click here. You can also donate money directly, which helps food banks offer training opportunities and buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

More than 30% of people relying on food banks are children. Donate foods that would best support a child’s development, and take the opportunity to talk to your own kids about why healthy eating is so important.

Food bank users come from all backgrounds, ages, and education levels. In 2010 nearly 900 000 people Canadian food banks per month. They have enormous potential and lots to contribute. Let’s try to understand the causes of poverty and hunger, promote supportive policy changes, and think of our donations as investments with long-term human-powered returns.

Most needed items

Baby food and baby formula
Beans and lentils
Canned fruit and vegetables
Canned fish and meat
Cans of soup or hearty stew
Peanut butter
Tetra pack, canned, or powdered milk
Tomato sauce
Whole wheat pasta and rice

Please do not donate

Cake or brownie mix
Expired items
Homemade items (e.g. jams, pickles)
Junk food like chips, cookies, popcorn
Open packages of food
Products containing alcohol

Learn more:

Daily Bread Food Bank's Learning Centre

Food Banks Canada’s Annual Hunger Count

The Cost of Eating in BC 2009. Dietitians of British Columbia

Need support?

Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society

The Warehouse/Food for Families

Quest Food Exchange
Low-cost grocery store (referral required). Contact Stephanie at 604-435-0323 for more information.

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