Food banks are ‘a slow death of the soul’
The Guardian, by Patrick Butler
There’s an uncomfortable passage in Canadian activist Nick Saul’s food-bank memoir, The Stop, where he is taken aside by Dorothy, a long-time volunteer in her 60s. She says she’s unhappy with the changes he is making. She hates his new rules that limit how much food can be given, and to whom, and how often. Exasperated, she exclaims: "Aren’t we supposed to be giving to the needy?"
The encounter helps to crystallise Saul’s thinking about charity food aid. Of course we are helping the needy, but what do you say to the hungry person who turns up after the food has run out? Why do we never find out why the person is hungry in the first place? He starts to question the entire charity food-bank model "of privileged people helping the underprivileged, perpetuating an us-and-them atmosphere".
For Saul, 47, a community organiser in his home town of Toronto, the problem – he believes – is that traditional food banks don’t really help the needy. Their food "handouts" are often of dismal quality, and the "transaction" – the silent, humiliating transfer of the food parcel – does nothing to help clients’ dignity or self-esteem, get them a job, help them out of poverty, or improve their health and wellbeing. For a moment food-bank clients are not hungry – but not for long.
"The truth is," he writes in the book, published this week in the UK, "the more time I spend in the food bank, the more certain I am of the failure of a charitable approach to hunger and poverty, which serves the interests of food corporations and some volunteers better than it does the poor themselves." (This revelation came to him in 1998.)
He decides that The Stop, his down-at-heel food bank in central Toronto, has to get "aspirational". Out go the bruised vegetables and the "any-food-is-better-than-no-food-for-the-poor" ethos. They take over a huge, abandoned, tram-repair shed, set up a garden and kitchens, and hold farmers’ markets, cookery courses and after-school programmes. Local food-bank clients start to volunteer. The post-food-bank model, he decides, has to be based on relationships, not transactions.
The Stop has since grown to become something of a poster-child for food-poverty projects. No Logo author Naomi Klein has called it "one of our most visionary movements for justice and equality". Chef Jamie Oliver came to visit and called it "amazing". It now boasts an 8,000 sq ft (740 sq metres) community garden and greenhouse, producing 10,000lb (4,500kg) of vegetables a year. Its farmers’ market sells more than C$2m (£1m) worth of locally produced goods each year. It has grown from four employees to 40. The plan is to create 15 more Stops under the Community Food Centres Canada brand.
Not everyone is quite so enamoured. Saul admits the food-bank sector in Canada – where charity food banks have been operating for more than three decades, often in partnership with big food corporations – are "increasingly defensive" at his suggestion that they are part of the problem. Saul is unmoved.
The "pull of the food bank" is seductive, he admits, not just for volunteers, but for businesses (who "catch the glow of being a good corporate citizen") and for government, which praises food-aid volunteers as "a sign society is coming together, and the problem is being taken care of".
Charity food creates a moral pressure-release valve, he says, adding: "The only person who is not benefiting is the person who this was set up to help. Most people who have to visit food banks say it is a slow, painful death of the soul."
He has found Canadian government papers dating back to the late 1980s in which officials agonised over the rise of food banks amid what were then assumed to be temporary cuts in public spending. They provide a stark warning for the UK, where food banks are in their relative infancy. "These papers called it ‘a temporary emergency response’ and proposed to ‘bring the issue of food poverty back to government’," says Saul. That language has now "fallen off the radar … The ‘food drives’ [food collections by churches, schools and businesses] and fundraising walkathons have taken over the civic space."
But isn’t The Stop, at its core, a food bank, albeit a very sophisticated one? Saul can see the point, but disagrees it is part of the problem. The Stop uses food to help the people it serves to organise, to create change, to understand poverty and to fight it, he says.
"For me, the power of the garden is when a Bangladeshi immigrant learns what he can grow in his own backyard and gets to meet some new people." Four-fifths of The Stop’s clients report that they have made a new friend through the scheme. "That’s an important statistic, given that poverty is so isolating," he says.
So what lessons does he have for the UK? Always remember people are hungry because they are poor. The key issues are fair wages, inequality, environment and health. Don’t get caught in the "logistics trap", preoccupied with shipping crates of food around the food-bank network. "Don’t ever get caught thinking you are an answer to the problem of food poverty. You have to speak out about why people are poor," he says.
Ideally, you wouldn’t set up a food bank at all, he says. "Is it practical for there to be a moratorium on food banks in the UK?" he wonders. "Is it practical for the big food-bank players to say, ‘We are not going to do this?’."
Above all, he says, don’t get forget about the power of food. "Joy and cultural expression comes from food. It’s a magical way to develop a community."