In the Spring of 1999, the Halton Social Planning Council released the Halton Food Bank Study: Alternatives to Dependency. Concern about food security in our community evoked a series of questions about the role of food banks in resolving people’s food needs.
This study provides important insights into food banks and their contribution to people’s food security in our community. It describes the transformation of food banks from an emergency response to organizations providing food over significant time periods to those without. It also uses the spoken and written comments of study participants to identify the root causes of food insecurity.
Although Canada produces plentiful supplies of food, many residents cannot gain access to adequate nutrition. By 1992, food banks in Canada outnumbered McDonald’s franchises three to one. By 1994, the number of food banks in Canada had risen dramatically to 457.
There is a direct correlation between the increased number of food banks in Canada and Statistics Canada’s figures on the increased number of people living in poverty. In 1996, Statistics Canada identified 1,267,205 families as having incomes below the Low-Income Cut-Off, as compared with 972,855 families in 1991, an increase of 30%.
Although Halton is a more affluent region than others in Ontario, many people in Halton are poor and are not able to meet basic food needs. Using Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut-Off figures, poverty in Halton increased more dramatically than it did nationally between 1991 and 1996. In 1991, 4,590 families in Halton were poor, compared to 7,140 in 1996, an increase of 52%.
Who uses food banks in Halton?
The majority of the recipients of services from Halton food banks are families with children. The number of recipients using food banks increased from a monthly average of 1,015 families in 1994 to 1,495 in 1997.
Many food banks report significant changes in the profile of recipients including:
i) an increase in the number of working poor
ii) an increase in the number of unemployed people between the ages of 45 and 65 lacking current employment skills
iii) an increase in the number of people with disabilities
The study also reveals that of 102 food bank recipients in Halton who were studied:
- 80% have children,
- 34% live in a household with an adult who has a disability,
- 27% have a college diploma or certificate or a university degree,
- over 40% have monthly household incomes between $500 and $999,
- 56% have sometimes gone without food so their children can have food,
- 45% do not own a car,
- 70% receive social assistance,
- 91% live in rented accommodation,
- 26% are on the subsidized housing waiting list,
- 34% went without food for one day or more before going to the food bank, and
- 85% indicated that they or their partner would be able to work if affordable quality child care was available.
Do Food Banks Meet the Needs of Those Depending on Them?
In general, recipients think food banks are helpful and are very grateful they exist, asserting that they and others would be in a worse situation without them.
“We’re very grateful, extremely grateful, we wouldn’t be this far… they really helped us.”
Food bank recipients agree that food banks assist them, but feel several improvements can be made. The following comment reflects the view of participants:
“I think they are doing a good job and they are doing a tough job, so they might as well complete this and ask the people… find out the exact needs. Not the exact needs -the necessities.”
Recommendations for improvements call upon food banks, service providers, concerned citizens, the private sector and government to collaborate in order to:
- develop consistent policies and procedures to better serve food bank recipients such as eligibility requirements, frequency of visits, food quality, including expiry dates, availability of food vouchers and provision of non-food items.
“Sometimes some of the stuff is really old… past its expiry date.”
- improve the opportunity for recipients to exchange items that are unsuitable or personally unacceptable.
“If the food banks allowed you to go in there and pick what you used. You know what I mean, there’s not much sense in giving you a can of pork and beans… because I can’t eat it. I would be better off if they let me pick something that I can use myself.”
- educate the public on the need for basic staple foods that recipients identify to be essential as well as processed foods.
“Don’t give me another can of brown beans, give me a package of barley that I can make beef barley soup. Brown beans and canned spaghetti, I’m sorry I’m getting so sick of receiving it because I can only eat so much… but if you gave me a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, a bag of powdered milk…”
- create a food security action body to i) advocate for those who need food banks, ii) coordinate food bank services, and iii) develop additional complementary or alternative programs.
“Whenever you see an ad for a drive for the food bank, you know on the bag or in the paper they always ask for the same things. They ask for canned fish and they ask for macaroni and cheese… people [food bank recipients] are getting the same things but is this what we are asking for?”
- increase employment opportunities and develop strategies to provide more jobs that pay adequate wages and ensure that relevant training and education programs are available to those that need them.
“I get angry when I think about it because I worked all my life… it’s not my fault.”
- increase the minimum wage to reflect the basic cost of living.
“It’s something that’s more than just a job… people that are just getting jobs are not necessarily out of the food bank syndrome… their jobs aren’t affording them a lifestyle that they can stop using the food bank… $6.85 an hour minimum wage isn’t going to do it.”
- increase the Maximum Basic Needs Allowance of social assistance so that it is adequate to cover monthly expenses.
“You know it’s really ridiculous and when you talk to these people and say listen how the hell am I going to pay $500 in rent and feed a growing boy, eighteen years old… he eats like a horse… and help with the clothing and stuff like this on $600, can anybody tell me how to do that, I would greatly appreciate it.”
- increase funding for new social housing programs and creatively develop affordable housing alternatives.
“We were compelled to rent a very high apartment. It’s $1,000 per month for rent, which is very high, but we couldn’t find an alternative. We applied to subsidized housing but subsidized housing says they have a long waiting list and that is the reason why we depend completely now on the food bank.”
Participants expressed hope that this study would increase public awareness about the need for food bank services in Halton and address some of the reasons for food bank dependency. They believe that the community has little understanding of poverty and how it drives one to seek help from food banks. People donate food but do not question why they need to give food or why there is a need for food banks.
The Council trusts that this report will serve as a blueprint for action to build food security across Halton.
Full copies of the Halton Food Bank Study: Alternatives to Dependency and Executive Summary are now available.
To order a copy, contact the Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre.
Produced by the Community Development Halton
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Burlington, Ontario L7N 3N4
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