After 30 Years of Food Banking How Are We Doing?

We are rapidly closing in on the 1 year anniversary of adopting Link 2 Feed.  If you recall, we blogged about it last year and some of the implications of using it for the future.  Look forward to a bit of analysis next month as we consider a year worth of data and what insights we might gain from it about hunger in the region and how busy our program was.

Today I wanted to reflect on 2015 in general, which provides a nice opportunity to consider 30 years of food banks, basically, from their inception as a desperate measure to help out, to an established and complicated part of a very different society.

I want to narrow the focus down to the experience of the House of Friendship.  We have spoken in other posts about what food banks do, some alternatives and some implications of different ideas.  I want to sidestep that, and instead take a look at what emergency food assistance looks like for the us.

What we think

“Please start understanding we don’t want to be homeless or treated like we are worth nothing…”  -feedback from a participant

Food Banks are often one of the last stops in a journey through difficult times. We believe that they can be a dignified and helpful oasis in a distressing landscape, but that they are not a long term solution to a complicated and messy problem like hunger.

What we know…

“The fridge is empty. I am having a tough time getting to potential jobs due to the spot I am in at this time but am doing my best to find work in the down town area as it is close to my home. […] Times are tough at the moment as I am trying to get work lined up but have fallen behind with the Christmas season as I was playing the role of mom, dad and Santa just after losing my two jobs.”-email enquiry

We are part of a broader food assistance network and as a part of that larger group we serve 1 in 20 people living in the Kitchener or Waterloo.

The majority of people using local food banks rely on either Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.   While there have been some very slight improvements in the income of people using those supports, your income is massively constrained, and as a result you can quickly run out of money for food.

People living on a lower income experience more health problems because they lack stable access to many of the social determinants of health (good housing, less stress, food, meaningful employment, social inclusion).

On top of this 15% of the people we serve describe persistent poor health and barriers to accessing our services when we ask them.

What we do about it

“I used to get paid a lot of money to do stuff that wasn’t that important, now I get paid nothing to do incredibly important work!”  -program volunteer

Over the years our service has evolved in little ways, but essentially, our core service remains: provide short term emergency food assistance that we hope will last 3-5 days.

When evaluating potential donations we prioritize fresh healthy produce over less healthy options as much as we can.  To help make that happen we build relationships with local farmers to source donations of fresh produce over the summer months and to store surplus into the fall and early winter.

In order to do our work we have structured the program around the contributions of volunteers and provide meaningful opportunities for interacting with people turning to us for service.

We also participate in the broader Emergency Food Network which is made up of hard working compassionate people trying to help.  Central to this is our partnership with the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, which does the majority of the work getting food to programs where it can be most effective.

What we aim to achieve

“Today I want to celebrate [this] fantastic, wonderful, giving community.” -feedback from a participant

We aim to serve with dignity the customer/client/program patron, who always has a right to refuse, question, advocate and choose.

We try and serve healthy food and encourage people to take risks with new foods they have never met before. Plantains, bitter melon, different varieties of squash, chard, kale and other goodies can show up in volume and are full of nutritious surprises.

We want to be there in crisis – with a referral, encouragement, food and whatever else we can do.

Advocating for change can be difficult but is central to what we want to do. We work within the network to be a positive force for change – advocating for dignity, consistency and service with humility not judgement.  We also want to speak persuasively about ways to end food banks as institutions.  So, how are we doing, as a part of the broader social support net in this community?

How are we doing?

“Every day I struggle with not having enough money, even though I work almost full time hours.” -feedback from participant

Via the magic of plotly, Monthly EFHP food distribution numbers by month


As you can see there are some major differences between what we did each month in 1985, and the three decades that followed.  We moved to a bigger location, recessions happened, and how governments provided income supports to the unemployed and disabled changed dramatically.

Are food banks solving the problem of food insecurity?  They are solving a lot of short term problems for sure, but hunger is a long term problem that is not going away.  How you can “solve” this problem can be described in three ways.  You can start with the surface problem, the tip of the iceberg, and donate.  You can dig a little deeper and get a conversation going that will find solutions. You can get down further, and let people who can make some real changes know you think it’s a priority and to help make them a reality by sharing ideas, your experiences and values.

Donate, agitate, advocate

The true magnitude of the problem is likely not clear to the average person because food banks do a good job taking the catastrophic edge off the issue.  But it is still a catastrophe happening in slow motion, over decades.

If you donate to food drives in your workplace, school or place of worship, keeping donating. People are hungry, and a can of beans, or a package of spaghetti, might not seem like much to you, but it can join the donations of others and provide a meal for someone who otherwise, would not eat.

Don’t give up hope. Yes, you are one person, and words like poverty are abstract, scary and hard to ‘fix’ but hunger is real and chances are good, it is within walking distance of your front door.  You don’t deserve to be hungry, your neighbours don’t deserve to be hungry. No one does. Hunger is horrible.

So if all you can do is donate one thing. Great. You are setting the clock back on hunger for someone. You are buying someone a few meals. You are saying in a loud voice, you care. That is a hugely important first step. Next, if you can, spread the word. People not having enough to eat each day is a big problem. Don’t let it fade into the background among the many things screaming for our collective attention. There is no easy answer but as a society we can find it. Start a conversation. Volunteer. Get involved. Agitate.

Finally, if you have any further energy or time. Get to the root.Write a letter, call, or visit your local member of parliament. Let them know that you care about this issue, that you have concerns about the well being of your neighbours, and that no one deserves to be hungry.

Posted on: February 5th, 2016

Sign up for Friendship News!

Learn more about how you can make a difference and ensure that everyone can belong and thrive in Waterloo Region! Receive inspirational stories about how you are making a difference right to your inbox.