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Access denied: Food banks should not means-test those seeking emergency support

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Paul Taylor in the FoodShare Toronto warehouse, where the organization stores and packages fresh produce for delivery. Image: Sandro Pehar, used with permission

The COVID-19 crisis has thrown into stark relief just how many of us are a paycheque away from using a food bank. 

According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, visits to food banks in Canada increased by 30 per cent in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. We don't yet know the full impact of the pandemic, but in just two weeks, Daily Bread's on-site food bank received a 53 per cent hike in visits. 

At a time of escalating food insecurity, and a spike in visits to food banks across Canada, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank announced they will soon be asking clients to provide proof of income as well as ID for every member of their household in order to access a three-day food supply.

They could not have picked a worse time to throw up roadblocks to accessing food.

For the majority of people seeking emergency food support, the food bank has issued an impossible request. Compiling paystubs, receipts and identity documents takes significant time and energy -- in short supply when you're staring at an empty fridge -- not to mention the very real risk to individuals who must print and hand-deliver paperwork in the midst of a pandemic. 

Such demands, regrettably, are all too common and are why so many people avoid seeking help in the first place. Demanding that people prove themselves deserving of help stigmatizes the use of charitable food services and causes deep-seated feelings of shame. 

Studies have demonstrated this to be the case. The PROOF research team at the University of Toronto recently surveyed 371 low-income families in Toronto. While 75 per cent had experienced some food insecurity, only 23 per cent used a food bank. Why? Because for many, visiting a food bank wasn't something a "person like me" should do -- it was considered degrading.

Cynthia Boulter, chief operating officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, defended the new requirements, saying they were necessary in order to provide accountability and transparency for donors -- "So we can show that the work that we do, the food that we collect and distribute, is going into the right hands."

The stance that the Vancouver Food Bank has taken reflects the yawning gap between donors and administrators on one side of the social chasm, and the folks on the receiving end of services on the other side. 

Too often recipients of our charity are required to fit preconceived notions of what someone in need should look like, behave and live. We demand gratitude for what we've given. This approach is not just dehumanizing. It is a distraction from real and systemic issues. We feel good about helping the right people when, instead, we should be questioning why so many people need help in the first place.

The Vancouver Food Bank's requirements are described as "means-testing." Proponents of means-testing argue that their requirements are necessary because organizations and governments have limited resources. 

Why do we have such limited supplies in the first place? Who isn't paying their fair share? And why are we putting the responsibility of cost-savings on people seeking to use a food bank?

Means-testing is never applied to people at the opposite end of the income spectrum. Our federal income tax bracket stops at $214,368 yet Canada boasts 45 billionaires. Wealthy people are not denied access to our publicly funded parks, public schools or socialized health-care system. So why do we spend so much time and energy hounding low-income people trying to access services to which they're entitled?

The Greater Vancouver Food Bank's website proudly declares that "food is a basic human need." It is indeed a basic human right, and the food bank itself is denying that right when it limits access to food with the disclaimer that some people will "game the system" -- presumably by virtue of feeding themselves and their families.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, we can re-imagine the supports that our society could provide, and how we can advance a human rights informed public policy agenda. We can't fall back upon regressive notions about who is "needy enough" to warrant such changes. 

Paul Taylor is the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, Canada's largest food justice organization.

Image: Sandro Pehar, used with permission.

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