Hungry… for a change?

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By Tamara Cottle

Food banks are an important commodity on campus for students who are stretched financially thin. Mary Hart*, arts major and a single mother at the University of Calgary, uses the Campus Food Bank regularly.

Before she was a student, Hart was a starving artist, working three jobs and supporting a child on her own. In 2008, when she was diagnosed with cancer, Hart had to quit her jobs and undergo chemotherapy. The food bank has helped her get through those tough times.

“We got $600 a month from the government and my rent was $700 plus I had to feed a child,” she says, recalling the difficult time in her life when she had to use a food bank for the first time.

Hart’s story is a familiar refrain for those facing unforeseen circumstances like medical conditions that challenge family finances. There are many families, though, with working adults who struggle to put food on the table. According to Food Banks Canada, 12 per cent of those assisted by food banks report their primary source of income from employment.

The yearly Hunger Count report conducted by Food Banks Canada reports that Food Bank use remains much higher than it was before the 2008 recession. Half of the households receiving food from food banks report social assistance as their primary source of income, 25 per cent are single-parent families while more than a third of those requiring emergency food are children.

Now a student, Hart is one of the 400 to 500 students who access the U of C Campus Food Bank every year. She lives on student loans and after paying all of her bills, including $1,200 a month for rent, there’s often not enough money left for food.

Shawnee Belleville, co-coordinator of the U of C Campus Food Bank understands the financial burden many students must deal with.

“Tuition is going up and if you don’t have that much money you’re not going to be able to afford some of the things that are increasing in price such as food,” she says.

Almost every university in Canada has a food bank. The University of Calgary provides an emergency hamper which supplies students with enough food for seven days. There is no limit on how many times students can access the food bank, and this, Belleville believes is especially important for students in exceptional situations.

“If we’re helping somebody get through a difficult time or they have kids or a family they are trying to help while they’re in school then I do think we are helping,” Belleville says.
January is a particularly tough time for a growing number of Canadians as budgets are often stretched at Christmas, energy and gas bills are more expensive as the cold sets in and food banks struggle to keep up with the increasing demand for emergency food.

“You just keep going and do your best and try to get extra work wherever you can,” Hart says, resolving herself to the fact that living with food security is a reality many people must accept in Canada.

Now a cancer survivor and close to graduation, Hart is appreciative of all the help she gets from charitable organizations like the food banks.

“We’re very grateful for the food banks. They’re part of the circle that allows me to be a student to make a better life for myself and my child,” she says.


Food banks, as we know them today, began in 1967 in Phoenix, Arizona, where a man named John Van Hengel was gleaning fruits and vegetables for a mission dining hall. He soon discovered that he could collect much more than the dining hall needed and the pastor of St. Mary’s church offered to rent a space for him to store the excess food. Van Hengel had heard about dumpsters behind supermarkets containing an abundance of food in sullied jars and bottles, dented cans, leaking bags and stale bread. He approached these grocers to negotiate a deal to take these unsaleable items off of their hands and give them to people who were hungry. Van Hengel pioneered this new food banking concept with St. Mary’s Food Bank, a space where charitable food donations could be housed and distributed to people in need.

Food banking has grown since the late ’60s, spreading north and establishing strong roots in Canada. The first Canadian food bank was founded in Edmonton in 1981 and since then food banks have sprung up all over the country. What started out as a temporary response to the recession of the early ’80s has now been institutionalized in Canada. Today there are more than 800 food banks and over 3,000 food programs providing emergency food.

Food banks are big business in Canada with companies like Campbell Soup Company, Nestle, Kellogg and Pepsico contributing both food and monetary donations. In 2011 Kraft gave Canadian food banks 1.4 million kilograms of food while Loblaws has donated more than $875,000 since 2008.

The vast majority of donations, however, are supplied by annual citizen food drives and approximately 45 per cent of food banks are volunteer run.

The Calgary Interfaith Food Bank distributes approximately 350 family or individual emergency hampers daily through a system which has been refined for efficacy not unlike an assembly line at a factory. To keep this system running smoothly, the Calgary Food Bank employs 50 paid staff and about a hundred volunteers per day to keep up with the demand for emergency food. Last year, 6,121 volunteers helped distribute 7,569,375 kilograms of food.

Volunteer retention is strong at the 30-year-old operation. Donna Braitenbach, who has been volunteering for 12 years, can be found at the Calgary Food Bank every Monday night checking people’s identification before they receive their hamper.

Braitenbach has an opportunity to talk with the clients and get to know the various people who access hampers.

“Most of the people that come to the food banks are working,” she explains. “One little thing like a flat tire, or a child getting sick or your partner getting a broken arm or something that throws you over the edge then people just need a little bit of extra help. And it’s just so gratifying to see their faces light up and know that there is help available.”

In most cases, clients at the Calgary Food Bank only access the service once or twice and eventually get the support they need to become self sufficient again. There are some cases, though, that elicit genuine concern from Braitenbach.

“I’ve met many, many elderly people at the food bank and that tugs at my heart,” she says. “Or very young mothers, single mothers that can’t quite make that money stretch far enough. Those are the people that really make me feel.”

Overall, Braitenbach’s experience helping the people who come to the food bank has been rewarding.

“I feel like I’m getting so much out of it,” confesses Braitenbach. “I know the people that come here are getting their food and their supplies, but I get so much more out of it than they do.”


The home page of the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank proudly displaying their record-breaking Christmas campaign, which garnered over $1,300,000 in food and funds, is a testament to the generosity of Calgarians willing to donate their efforts to those in need.

The food bank has an amazing ability to harness the good will in communities, bringing out the best in people.

“It brings out the best in people wanting to help their neighbours; it brings out the best in people wanting to volunteer their time; it brings out the best in people who want to bring a smile to somebody’s face,” says Lynn McIntyre, professor in the department of community health sciences, faculty of medicine at the University of Calgary. “[The food bank] does far more good for those who are volunteers than it does for those that are recipients. The recipients remain food insecure.”

McIntyre has been researching household food insecurity for 20 years and has come to see the problem food banks pose in addressing the issue of poverty in Canada.

One of the misconceptions perpetuated by food banks, explains McIntyre, is that they are helping all people in need when in fact people accessing food banks only represent the tip of the iceberg. According to McIntyre, less than a third of those who are food insecure actually use a food bank.

“It is an undignified activity to go to the food bank no matter how they try to reduce stigmatization, put a smile on their face and have a kind volunteer. It’s mortifying,” McIntyre explains.

“It’s an experience that one never forgets and that’s why so many people who are still food insecure do not go to the food bank. The hungry are still invisible in Canada because the food banks are taking them off the streets.”

To McIntyre, having the streets absent of people begging for food does not mean that we have found a solution to poverty and hunger. Those working within the food bank’s network also admit that food banks are not the best way to address food insecurity. The 2013 Food Banks Canada Hunger Count makes the paradoxical argument that we should reduce the need for food banks in Canada.

Inadequate social assistance rates, seasonal and part-time employment and overall poor wages contribute to what McIntyre describes as a persistent problem which existed even before the 2008 recession.

“It is one of these things we call an intractable policy problem,” she says. “We have not been able to regulate our employment to provide sufficient benefits in minimum wage for those who are working to meet basic needs.”

Like McIntyre, who believes the solution to food insecurity rests in the hands of the state rather than the arbitrary altruism of citizens, Food Banks Canada recommends several policy changes at the provincial and federal level.

After extensive research, Food Banks Canada recommends that the government maintain support for Canadians at risk of failing in the labour market, act to ensure that Canadian jobs are good jobs, prevent further erosion of federal support for affordable housing and increase social investment in northern Canada.

In order to execute these recommendations, the federal government needs to invest in its citizens with dedicated funds that will circumvent the billions of dollars lost addressing the health and social consequences of poverty. In a 2008 study conducted by the Ontario Associations of Food Banks, poverty costs the federal and provincial governments anywhere from $72 to $86 billion annually in health care, crime and intergenerational costs as well as lost productivity.


“I like the notion of peanut butter as it’s substantial on bread and provides you with some protein and nutrients such as iron and vitamin E. However, the brand I was given was problematic in a couple of ways.”

Susan Barker, vice-provost student experience at the University of Calgary, is describing an encounter with an item she received from the food bank when participating in the Hamper Project last March as part of Hunger Week. Hosted by Meal Exchange in association with the Students’ Union, the Hamper Project challenged participants to live off of a hamper from the Campus Food Bank for a week and blog about their experience in order to spread awareness about food insecurity.

The blog entry goes on to bemoan the long list of ingredients in the peanut butter, its hydrogenated fats, excess sugars and the fact that it came in a toxic plastic container.
I do make informed choices about my food and this is definitely not one I would ever choose and I certainly don’t think I can use the rest of the jar.

Barker’s thoughts demonstrate two of what Janet Poppendieck, author of Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, defines as the seven deadly “ins” of emergency food. Poppendieck’s seminal work lists “inadequacy” which means nutritionally unsound food and “inappropriate” foods that clients would not choose on their own. She explains why food banks do not solve the food insecurity problem.

The peanut butter, Barker explains, was a symbol of the many items that are typically found in food bank hampers. Sadly, nutritionally inadequate items of processed foods containing long lists of unintelligible ingredients, high salt, fat and sugar make up the majority of donations. These foods contribute to the the rising incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity in Canada.

“I really didn’t like the quality of food I received,” admits Barker when reflecting back on what she learned from the Hamper Project. “We have to really increase the quality of food we give because if we’re giving people junk food to eat then we’re not going to help them have a healthy sustainable lifestyle.”

Additionally, the peanut butter she received was not something that Barker would have selected had she been given the choice. The inappropriateness of food handouts is disappointing, especially for those with special diets or those unaccustomed to western food.

The “insufficiency” of food is also a reality for people accessing food banks. Although Calgary Interfaith Food Bank reports 82 per cent of recipients accessing the food bank less than twice, 18 per cent of clients require additional hampers of emergency food.

There is also the issue of “instability” or whether or not certain foods will be available through the food bank. Depending on donations, fluctuating markets and economic trends, food banks cannot guarantee certain essential food items for their clients.

Sometimes people have difficulty getting to a food bank, resulting in “inaccessibility.” Many food insecure people do not own a car and must rely on food sources that are found close to home. As a result, distance can act as an exclusionary force. For example, the Calgary Interfaith Food Bank is not located in a residential area and it can be exhausting carrying food hampers on public transportation especially with small children, disability or in bad weather.

The “inefficiency” of the food bank system is apparent in and of itself. Thousands of volunteer hours spent purchasing and redistributing food to people who must wade through an often exhausting process of appealing to client services and waiting in long line ups could be better spent on subsidies such as food vouchers, solutions that allow people to buy food for themselves without having to face the stigma associated with foodbanks.


When asked if the Campus Food Bank hampers could be improved in quality, Hart is hesitant.

“I don’t want to say anything bad about them because they’ve been keeping us going,” she says

After thinking about it, Hart admits she could use more fresh fruit, milk and less processed food for herself and her daughter. She wishes that the food bank could arrange something with the Co-op food stores so she could choose her own food.

This ability to choose highlights the crux of the seventh and most deadly “in” of Poppendieck’s list of what’s wrong with food banks. A two-tiered system of food procurement where wealthy people can choose to eat whatever they want and poor people must accept what they are given no matter how unhealthy, insufficient or inappropriate constitutes the inequality and indignity that pervades the emergency food system.

Still, when food is available, no matter how nutritionally deficient, meagre or unfamiliar, there will be people who must accept what is given to them so they can face the next day.
“You know what? I’d be a fool to let my pride over step my doing the best I can to raise a child,” Hart says with conviction. It’s hard to argue with someone who has seen the other side of death and knows first hand what it feels like to be hungry.

“I’ll make the best choices I can, hopefully, to raise my child and if it means accessing a food bank so we have fresh milk and food so be it.”

*names have been changed.