Food Banks Canada has just released its annual “Hunger Count”, a survey of food bank utilization across the country. The report shows that food bank utilization is rising, in both Canada and Saskatchewan.
Many people believe that food banks are a necessary evil, a community response to the failure of governments to address increasing poverty, and even a canary in the mine for our society. The Regina Leader Post strongly editorialised on this theme after this year’s hunger count, and they are hardly alone. The evidence, however, does not support the notion that food bank use and poverty rates are closely linked. Over the period the food banks have been collecting statistics, while food bank utilization has been rising, poverty has in fact been falling.
For example, in 1993 14.8 per cent of Saskatchewan households were below the low-income cut-off. In 2008, the most recent year for which the statistic is available, the figure was just 7.2 per cent. This downward trend has been quite consistent over the years. For Canada, the corresponding figures are 9.4 per cent in 2008, down from 14.8 per cent in 1993 also.
If poverty is not getting worse, why are more people using food banks? The answer probably lies in the way food banks operate their service.
In simplest terms, the food banks give away free groceries. For this reason alone it would be understandable that they would become attractive to more and more people. This is a key difference between food banks and, for example, thrift shops, where modest prices act as a self-screening tool and reduce waste.
Food banks also do not directly assess users for need. They rely instead on external agencies to determine need and make referrals for food hampers. These referral agencies may not have the capacity to screen accurately for need, and have little incentive to say no to anyone.
Food banks also offer additional services that widen their attraction. The Regina Food Bank, for example, provides not only food baskets, but also a variety of employment and educational services.
The food bank movement equates rising utilization with more hungry citizens, but low-income statistics do not bear this out. It is much more likely that food banks create their own demand by offering an attractive service that is only broadly targeted to low-income people.
This does not, of course, make food banks a bad thing. Better nutrition is a worthwhile goal in itself. Lower food costs give families more flexibility within household budgets, and more capacity to cope with problems like rising housing costs.
Food service users may also take advantage of education or employment services, increasing their long term earnings. Food banks may reduce food wastage, which some sources estimate at over 25%. The food banks have also succeeded like no other social agency in mobilizing support of businesses and the general public.
The benefits of food banks should be appreciated in their own right, however. Given the current structure of the food banks, we should expect them to be a permanent part of our community social service system, and we should expect utilization to go up, independent of trends in the economy or government policies towards poverty or low income.