A losing battle
Downtown food banks don’t fight food insecurity.
They encourage it
By Cole Buhler
THIS YEAR MARKS the 40th anniversary of the opening of Canada’s first food bank. Located in Edmonton, it was intended to be a semi-permanent solution to food insecurity. Since then, food banks have taken a prominent role in downtown Edmonton as one of the few options for marginalized people to access food.
Food was recognized as a fundamental human right by the UN in 1948, but provincial and federal governments have done little to create a sustainable food system. Instead, governments have taken a hands-off approach by funding private charity organizations – mostly run by volunteers. According to a federal government website, the 2021 Emergency Food Security Fund will provide $100 million to organizations that support food banks.
Kris Knutson, the director of programs at The Mustard Seed, said the status of food banks is due in part to how easy it is for donors to give and forget.
“It’s transactional, but it’s not relational. It stops at charity and doesn’t move towards solidarity. You can go into any of our wealthier neighbourhoods and find generous donors all over the place, but they’ll be the first ones to object to having an affordable housing complex built in their community.”
but it’s not relational’
Knutson says Western culture is to blame for creating, in place of structural changes, a system in which food banks are considered viable, long-term solutions.
“How do you feed more people at a soup kitchen, rather than put them into their own homes, where they can [feed] themselves?” Knutson said. “So, for Mustard Seed, Bissell, Boyle, we’re all caught in this tension of trying to move people out of the emergency charity model and into long-term development.”
Part of Knutson’s solution is lobbying the government’s tax models. He argues that an increase on taxing unhealthy food could generate revenue for social security programs like affordable housing, community gardens, and community kitchens. Until governments enact systemic change, he said, programs in the downtown core remain unsustainable.
The Mustard Seed food bank is one agency struggling to bring food to the hungry. (Cole Buhler)
The Leftovers Foundation, a food redistribution charity with locations across the province, is another private organization filling the city’s food gap. During 2020 alone, the organization redirected roughly 70,000 kilograms of unused food in Edmonton – from just 30 donors – to such service agencies as the Edmonton Food Bank. This represents more than $300,000 worth of food saved.
Interim CEO Audra Stevenson said she is a firm believer that the government’s approach misses the point and represents an unsustainable future for alleviating food insecurity.
‘A sustainable food system requires us to look at
poverty, homelessness, racial inequity and wealth gaps’
“Food systems aren’t broken, they are unjust and are functioning the way they were designed,” Stevenson said. “They benefit the individuals they were intended to benefit. A sustainable food system requires us to look at poverty, homelessness, racial inequity, and wealth gaps.
“Food is often a symptom of larger societal issues.”
Although Stevenson admitted there is no ideal solution to the food crisis, she said she’s confident a universal basic income (UBI) could create food sovereignty in Edmonton.
“I’m trying to bring together emergency food services to talk about UBI,” she said. “There’s a real appetite for it.”
Heidi Bench, Leftover’s VP of operations, said a lack of knowledge about food systems has led people to accept food banks as permanent solutions.
“I believe that humans are innately kind and compassionate beings,” Bench said. “This is what drives people to donate to programs like food banks. However, there is a lack of education around the role of traditional donor-funded food organizations. Food banks ‘solve’ food insecurity in the same way that antacids solve heartburn: treat a problem’s symptoms. But they don’t address the root cause of the problem.
“In the increasingly complex and complicated world we live in, simplicity is attractive.”
Bench is another proponent of UBI, saying that it would help communities get closer to food sovereignty and security. Along with UBI, Bench noted that we need to move away from industrial agriculture and focus on food systems outside Edmonton.
“A significant amount of our food is produced by peasant food growers abroad, and unless we change our current taste for foods grown in tropical climates, we can’t just focus on changes at home.”
Everyone appears to agree that food banks are unsustainable – and until donors realize it, we won’t be able to solve our food crises.