Why anti-poverty researchers are furious at requests for donations to food banks during the holidays

Drives for food bank donations are a staple of the holiday season, but some Canadian food insecurity researchers say the appeals can be hard to swallow.

Josh Smee, executive director of Food First NL, a Newfoundland and Labrador-based nonprofit, says he tends to feel conflicted around the holidays when calls to donate to local food banks mount, often accompanied by messages on how to end hunger.

Hunger is an income problem, he said, adding that people don’t have enough food because they don’t have money to buy it.

Smee said donating to food banks won’t put more money in the pockets of people who depend on them for food, but systemic change, such as raising minimum wages and income support levels, will.

“The reality is that we have built a system where private charity is replacing where the social safety net should be,” Smee said in a recent interview. “Right now it’s absolutely imperative that people donate when they can. But I think when people do make those donations, they should also communicate with decision makers to let them know that it’s not acceptable for these circumstances to exist.”

Research from Proof, a national task force on food insecurity based at the University of Toronto, shows that nearly 16 percent of households in Canadian provinces adjusted their diets or simply ran out of food in 2021 because there wasn’t enough. food available.

In the same sample, the researchers found that about 63 percent of households that received social assistance or income support last year were food insecure. The same was true for nearly 14 percent of surveyed households whose income came from wages or salaries, according to the group’s research.

Meanwhile, annual welfare rates for a single person in 2021, including tax breaks, ranged from $7,499 in New Brunswick to $13,838 in Prince Edward Island, according to a report released last week by the group Toronto-based Maytree anti-poverty experts.

Smee said he wants provincial governments to index welfare rates to inflation and raise minimum wages. He is also part of an effort to encourage the Newfoundland and Labrador government to implement a basic income program.

“Poverty is so expensive,” Smee said. “Effectively, what we’re all doing as individual taxpayers…is we’re subsidizing by keeping income support rates low and keeping wages low. Because those people are looking for state support or charity.”

Lynn McIntyre, professor emeritus of community health at the University of Calgary School of Medicine, said she feels desperate each year when people are urged to donate to local food banks.

“I think I’ve gotten over the despair, but I’m not quite there yet,” said McIntyre, who is part of the Proof research group. “I am very, very disappointed that we still think that this problem of inadequate income can be solved with food.”

Food banks first opened in Canada in the early 1980s and were supposed to provide temporary support amid a deepening recession, McIntyre said. She said the government’s continued investment in food banks indicates that those in power are not prepared to address the root causes of hunger, which include inadequate income.

She said she was pleased to hear that Smee’s organization held a conference on Saturday in St. John’s, NL, called “Rethinking Charity Food.” The event was aimed at helping non-profit organizations such as food banks get more involved in advocating for systemic change.

“I think that’s really the right thing to say. Don’t just drop a can and then say, ‘But I really believe in basic income’ or ‘I believe in poverty reduction initiatives.’ I think we have to completely stop these responses and strengthen our current system.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on November 27, 2022.

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