Give a Man a Fish

The Food Bank‘s, (Ottawa) website says it “provides 40,000 people each month with emergency food assistance, 40% of whom are children.” Food banks are now worried because rising food and gas prices are making it harder to keep their shelves stocked.

The whole food bank concept makes me crazy. Food banks, care packages, soup kitchens were meant as stop-gap emergency measures — for disaster relief… for war-torn countries…in places or times when food was scarce. So, how did they get to be permanent fixtures in Canada? Last time I checked, there was plenty of food around.

Mega-grocery stores are everywhere, groaning with edibles. There are markets, natural food stores, straight-from-the-farm home delivery services, restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops, pubs, snack bars – food all over the place. All you need to get some is some money.

So why have we established such inefficient, costly, unpredictable systems of food distribution to people who don’t have enough money to get food? Food banks have become industries with paid employees and warehouses and transport trucks and associations with websites. All that costs money. It’s nuts.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to just give people the money they need to buy food?

I guess we think that if the poor have any more money they’ll just blow it on booze and drugs. Maybe they can’t be trusted to feed themselves and their children? Is that why we’ve benevolently chosen to give them food instead? And why do we want to put people into such a humbling situation where they have to line up for a crate of food – food that isn’t even of their own choosing.

To me one of the basic freedoms of being an uninstitutionalized autonomous adult is being able to choose the food I want to eat. Canada’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights commits this country, to ensuring “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself/herself and his/her family, including adequate food, clothing and housing.”

It says nothing about letting volunteers and charities take care of the food issue so that we can all believe we’re doing something that’s solving the poverty problem in this country. As long as the food banks are chugging along, we have no reason to seriously address the social and economic reasons for poverty.

We all feel virtuous by tossing a few cans of beets into the food drive bin. And while it’s real nice that people want to help, we’re also perpetuating the problem.

People who can’t afford to buy food shouldn’t have to depend on our leftovers to survive. It grinds them even further into dependence, humility, hopelessness. People need to be able to get their own money to buy their own food. They need education and/or employment and/or affordable housing and/or affordable daycare and/or adequate social assistance.

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19 responses to “Give a Man a Fish

  1. Having grown up in a family that was at times poor as hell, we would have welcomed that can of beets or anything else that would have added to our dinner of biscuits.

    I agree the system is screwed but until it becomes unscrewed, these people need something to eat. Our pantries down here are all volunteer.

  2. Zoom – Thanks. I was interested to see if you (as something of an expert in this area) would have a list of really good reasons for food banks that I, for the life of me, couldn’t see.

    POP – As you see, your post yesterday inspired this one. Of course we all help in whatever way we can, but I would rather have given your family $100 so you could have done your own grocery shopping – just that much more empowering than handing you a crate of stuff someone else decided you should be eating.

  3. Yes, it’s a more complex question than it appears on the surface.
    …but before I continue, I have to compliment you.
    Since your return, you have not only been PROLIFIC, but interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining.
    I’ve missed reading you, and your absence has made me appreciate your blog’s presence even more.

    Now – food banks.
    We – through my company – support their work wholeheartedly, and here’s why. At Hamilton Food Share, they have developed a system where your ONE dollar donation buys TEN dollars worth of food. They have deals in place with different facets of the food industry to buy surplus (a lot of great stuff that would otherwise go to waste), and get a great deal on transportation as well. With the state of the economy, that may change to one dollar buying eight dollars worth of food, but that’s still eight times more than an individual could buy if you gave the money directly to the person in need. I know, it’s a ‘greater good’ mentality, and I don’t disagree with you…but they’ve put a lot of thought and work into developing a good system, and as POP said – until it’s unscrewed, people need to eat. It’s shocking who needs food banks. Some of the most effective ads I’ve seen for ANYthing are the ads showing a woman about to open a can of food, and as she opens it, the roof begins to peel off of her house. Agonizing, heartbreaking choices have to be made. “Pay the rent/mortgage, or feed my children?”
    Thanks for this post. Sorry about the length of my repsonse.

  4. Ditto to everything JB said.
    Besides, better someone else eating the beets in that can than me! Yuck!

    I think your post also dovetails nicely into the announcement made in Ottawa on Tuesday, of the province setting up a fund for people who can’t pay their rent. Why is such a measure even necessary in a country that we’re constantly told is so well off?

    And don’t get me started on abusers of the welfare system, who comprise probably 90% of people living in so-called “community housing”. On an almost regular basis, I get calls at work by someone complaining about the state of their city-owned home. If it’s dirty, clean it up! Don’t rely on someone else to do it. Look around your own unit, and make sure you keep it as clean as possible. That’s one hedge against mice, rats and cockroaches. And don’t cry to me about everything becoming more expensive. I work to make my living. Have you considered it?

    There. You did get me started. But I’m done ranting, and feel much better now. Thanks.

  5. JB – thanks. I’m not sure that I can live up to your compliments, but I’ll try.
    How much of food bank stuff is this surplus food and how much is food donations? And who says they put a lot of thought into this program? Do you have inside knowledge of their reasoning behind deciding this was the best way of ensuring that everyone has adequate food?

    Why isn’t that $10 worth of food for $1 deal available directly to the people who need it, for instance? Why do we need this degrading middle man? Give me the dollar and let me decide what kind of food I want to buy. Maybe I want to buy $10 worth of surplus food or maybe I’d rather spend that dollar at the market buying some fresh tomatoes. Why are you taking away my right to make a basic decision like what I’m going to eat?

    Bob – Oh yes – the “rent bank” that sends 2 months worth of rent to your landlord if you don’t have the money to make your rent.. My comments to that are the same as for food banks. Why don’t we just go all the way and institutionalize the poor like they used to in the old days? If we’re going to control every aspect of their lives instead of trying to improve their lives, wouldn’t it be easier to have them all in one stinkin’ place and put them to work? They’d be off the streets and out of our sight. They wouldn’t be defiling precious residential properties. We’d have them sterilized so they don’t reproduce, take their kids away since they can’t look after them anyhow and those that are unable to work because of age or infirmity would be left to die somewhere in a separate room.

  6. Bob, how do you define an “abuser of the welfare system”?

    I actually know quite a few people who are cheating on welfare.

    Here’s an example: my friend’s daughter recently got beat up by her partner. Police arrested him and he was forbidden from going anywhere near her, her 5-year-old son, or the apartment. She turned to welfare. Rent for their modest apartment is about $50 less than her total welfare cheque.

    My friend (her father) takes her grocery shopping every other week. The fact that she’s accepting the gift of food from her father – and not reporting it to welfare so they can deduct that amount from her cheque – makes her a welfare cheat.

    I’d hazard a guess that you’d be a welfare cheat too if your circumstances deteriorated as much as hers did.

  7. Like I said, I don’t disagree with you…but yes, I have first-hand knowledge. I’ve toured their site, been privy to their business plan. Since they had approached me to be the face of a campaign to help them fund-raise, I wanted details, and I got them.
    Then, I spent a week on an 18-wheeler back and forth to Louisiana, through which I promoted the work of Hamilton Food Share. We raised 16,000 bucks, equal to 160,000 dollars worth of food. I’d do it again in a heartbeat…but I can only speak for the business plan of Hamilton Food Share. I don’t know how anyone else’s food bank works.

    Until we live in a society where everyone can walk into a grocery store and buy 10 dollars worth of food for one dollar, I doubt your utopian state will be realized. It’s not that I don’t want to see that happen. How to make it happen is the question. In the meantime, we have what we have, and the folks who run major corporations continue to give money only to get tax cuts which will enable them to make more money, and Big Oil continues to prey on those in need of motorized transportation, etc., etc.

  8. I believe Hamilton might be the exception. Hamilton is one of the few cities to actually take poverty seriously and go beyond lip service to try to do something concrete about it. They’ve formed an anti-poverty partnership that includes business, the media, schools, government, etc. They’re actively trying to eliminate poverty.

    I could be wrong but I’d be surprised if a dollar buys ten dollars worth of food here in Ottawa.

  9. Great post and so true. I’m reading a book called Cabbagetown a novel based in the depression era in Toronto. I just finished a chapter where the main character has a rant like yours, people having to line up at the food bank and suffer the indignity of having to go home with your case of food that someone else decided they had to like.

    My mother used to work in a soup kitchen (sorry, I don’t know the correct word in English) as a food/volunteers coordinator. There were no meals at the beginning of the month when people on welfare received their cheques. Only rule was that if a child came, they had to feed them. Needless to say, they had their regulars. And this was in a small town east of Montreal.

    I agree with you, the system is flawed but would giving them money really be the answer? Yes, there are many who would be like you and me, who would use it wisely, buying food. For all genuine cases (and god knows there are so many) there are many more who are abusing the system. There are some welfare recipients who haven’t known anything else but welfare and who will continue the same trend. Vicious circle…

    What’s the solution? I have no idea. I hope a good and fair solution is found for everyone.

  10. Zoom: The person you describe is exactly the kind of person welfare should be for. It’s too bad she has to resort to her Dad buying her groceries and keeping quiet about it in order to eat properly. Perhaps if there was less abuse and the system was under less strain, the people who truly need and deserve welfare would get the support they really need.

    As for food banks, perhaps one solution would be electronic cards that could only be used at grocery stores, thereby allowing people to select their own groceries, and preserve their dignity. For all anyone would know, they’d just be buying groceries on debit cards. The obvious drawback would be the potential to buy crap, instead of the real food, diapers, milk, etc.

  11. I volunteer for the Food Bank in Vancouver. For the most part, the people who use the food bank are really living below the poverty level and are quite grateful for the services of the food bank, especially near the end of the month.

    Poverty is a huge issue, and it always amazes me that in countries like Canada and the U.S., there are so many people living in poverty. I think it’s like so many things, people tend to “blame the victim”, so not much effort is put into helping the situation overall. It’s like Scrooge said, “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” People say, “Can’t they get jobs?”

    I think more effort is put into helping stray animals in North American than is put into helping “stray” people.

  12. Zoom & JB – Thanks for the info on Hamilton. I didn’t know they were so progressive in this area.

    HD – wherever there’s a system there’s going to be abuse, but we can’t use that as an excuse to withhold assistance.

    Bob – you were doing pretty well there in the 1st paragraph, then you lost me again. Why should people who have less money than others have to live by different rules when it comes to basic human needs? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to buy junk food like the rest of us or blow some of their grocery money or rent money on a new winter coat for their kid if they want to? Does being poor automatically make you an incompetent moron who needs every aspect of his life carefully monitored? Poverty has a thousand faces. There are families with both parents working at whatever job they can get who still can’t make ends meet because housing takes up 80% of their wages. There are people who are disabled or the elderly whose pensions barely stretch to 2 weeks, let alone 4; women with very young children abandoned by their husbands and an ineffectual spousal support recovery system. All these people are perfectly capable of choosing their own groceries.

    Josie – Yes, very true. It’s convenient to assume people are poor because they’re lazy, drunk, shiftless losers who spend all their time figuring out ways to spyphon more tax dollars off of us regular working stiffs.

  13. I’ve been on welfare. It’s not enough to live on. I think anybody on welfare that doesn’t have something going on on the side – odd jobs paid under the table, selling stuff, busking on the street, whatever – just isn’t trying.

  14. Robin – the welfare system is set up to make cheating not only inevitable, but also necessary

  15. It’s true. And then the knowledge that you’re technically cheating and the fear of getting caught is what keeps you under control. You don’t dare criticize the welfare system, even though it’s one of the most dehumanizing, demeaning and irrational systems going. I remember being afraid to even ask for any clarification of the myriad of complicated rules because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.

  16. I think if people think of times that they may have been out of work and had to rely on UI and multiply that experience it might give them an inkling of what it’s like to live “in a system”

  17. All you whinging tax sucking lefties make me sick. After 13 yrs of schooling paid for exclusively by taxes. And after university paid for 2/3 by taxes. After several trips to emergency, paid for by taxes. I am a self made man and I don’t see why everyone else can’t do the same thing. Oh yeah I forgot my parents paid for a bunch of stuff too but that still counts as self made in my books. So I don’t see why we self made men/women should have to help anyone else. No charity, no welfare, no education, no health care. They should take care of themselves like we do and be happy we allow them in our country. Now I have to go see how I can cheat on my taxes which are way to high.