It’s a hard reality to face, but currently millions of people across North America are experiencing some form of food deprivation or food insecurity. Stigma is still attached to those who must use food banks to obtain a sufficient quantity of nutritious food.
I had the opportunity to chat with Kathe Rogers, Communications Manager of The Stop Community Food Centre and Jamie Sullivan, Vice President of External Affairs of The Greater Cleveland Food Bank, to dispel some of the common misconceptions that people have about food banks and food bank users.
One particularly persistent common sentiment is that food bank clients are lazy, entitled, and chronically taking advantage of services available to them. But according to Feeding America’s 2014 study Hunger in America, 20 percent of Feeding America households have a member who has served in the U.S. military, one in ten adults were currently in school, and 54 percent of reported at least one employed member in their household.
Meanwhile, Food Banks Canada’s report HungerCount 2014 reveals that food banks are used by a wide range of Canadians, including children and families, single people, and workers—one in every six households helped by food banks had income from current or recent employment.
At a majority of food banks, a standard interview process may occur to see if the individual fits eligibility requirements. The fear of shame and humiliation in the process can lead potential clients to not apply.
But this is not the case in all situations. Rogers of The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, Canada says, “The Stop believes that food is a basic human right, and we recognize that the ability to access healthy food is far from equal, and is often related to multiple issues, including low income. “[The Stop] has strived to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds health and community, and challenges inequality.” Programs at The Stop include a community kitchen and garden, cooking classes, drop-in meals, an outdoor oven and a food market.
People need a balanced diet, not simply for physical health, but for mental and emotional health as well. Having a lack of healthy food choice means you won’t feel good and won’t have energy to do the things you need. This is why nutritious food matters. Feeding America’s Hunger in America study showcased that for the first time, food bank clients were asking for more fresh produce, rather than meat or dairy.
Sullivan explains, “The Greater Cleveland Food Bank works to ensure that everyone in our communities has the nutritious food they need every day. Each year, we move towards closing the local meal gap in our six-county service territory, but the need continues to increase.”
Right now, The Stop Community Food Centre harvests more than 2,500 pounds of produce each year in their community gardens and greenhouse, which is then cycled back into their community programming and donated to their volunteers.
According to the HungerCount report, almost 80 per cent of food banks in Canada say they offer at least one non-traditional service to clients, whereas the Hunger in America 2014 study shows that 40 percent of agencies provide services related to SNAP benefits (commonly referred to as food stamps) and more than one-third of agencies offer services to help clients with non-food needs.
It’s not uncommon for food banks to offer learning opportunities along with food aid. For instance, the Oregon Food Bank offers free hands-on cooking and nutrition classes, led by volunteer chefs.
Rogers from The Stop says, “At the community level, we’ve contributed to community food security by giving people the skills to choose, prepare, and grow food, thereby becoming more food secure. Our community kitchens and gardens draw people together around food, which not only increases their access to food, but also reduces social isolation and builds networks between individuals.” By offering community members the opportunity to actively participate, The Stop has seen food bank clients turn into cooks, gardeners, volunteers, and engaged citizens, not just passive recipients of food charity.
It may be hard to believe, but little of the funding available to food banks is provided by the government. This is true in both the U.S. and Canada. Many food banks are relatively autonomous within their community and operate independent of their state.
Rogers says that last year, The Stop only received 8 percent of its income from government sources, with a majority of its funds coming from its own foundations (30 percent), events (20 percent), and individual donations (12 percent). Sullivan from The Greater Cleveland Food Bank said that of their $20,639,570 annual operating budget, 13 percent of funding comes from government grants and contracts, and that “the success of all of our efforts is largely contingent upon sustainability and additional funding opportunities that we must seek in order to continue providing the necessary services to those in need.”
Both The Stop and The Greater Cleveland Food Bank said that they are working on ways to address the root causes of hunger and poverty by advocating for policy change and developing more fundraising efforts.
We’d all like this to be true, but it’s not, sadly enough. According to HungerCounts 2014, food banks are used by a wide range of Canadians, including children and families, single people, and workers. The Hunger in America 2014 study shows that poverty remains intractable, with 247,000 local residents turned to The Greater Cleveland Food Bank. “While the recession has ended, this study indicates that more people are food-insecure than were four years ago, when the last Hunger in America study was conducted,” says Sullivan. “We must continue to expand our programs and provide the resources for more meals in our community.”
In a similar vein, “Food banks are a band-aid solution to the complex problem of hunger, not the answer,” says Rogers. “Food banks have become an institutionalized response to hunger and poverty, creating a moral release valve for government and dividing us as citizens between those on the giving and receiving ends of charity.” Last year at its Drop-in, The Stop served over 53,000 meals, and it is currently facing a shortfall which Rogers points to greater need in the city of Toronto.
Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a full-time community builder and official ‘head bee in charge’ of the food, fat and feminism blog, Fat Girl Food Squad. When she isn’t busy kickin’ ass and takin’ names, she is having serious feels for all things coffee, hip-hop, the art of drag, Kardashians, pizza and Doritos. You can find more bylines from her at Eater, BizBash and Toronto is Awesome. Follow her on Twitter: @amapod.