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Should we scrap food banks and instead give people money? In the first part of this series I outlined — with the help of a couple recent articles — why we should just give money. Food banks are disrespectful, and paternalistic. At the very least, people should be able to choose what they put in their own bodies, right? Food banks are also inefficient, requiring so many trucks and warehouses and volunteers. Giving money instead of food is a good idea, but, Debbie Downer here, I think it’s still more complicated, and that we can still do better. In what follows I complicate the two criticisms of food banking: paternalism and inefficiency.

Food banks and charities are paternalistic?

First off, what’s wrong with paternalism? Paternalism means I substitute my judgement for yours, because I claim to know better. In some cases, we accept or welcome other people’s authority in this way. When I’m sick, I choose to go to the doctor, and I happily give up my decision making to her.

However, part of what makes my life worth living is the feeling that I have more or less determined it for myself, or at least had a major say in most major decisions that affect me. Part of what it means to respect another human is to respect their ability to make decisions for themselves, and part of what it means to grow up is to “be allowed” to make those decisions for yourself. This is true despite the fact that true “self-determination” is a myth: we are social animals born into environments not of our choosing, constrained by the circumstances and histories that produced us.

Most every attempt to help someone you don’t know involves some kind of paternalism. Charities are, in other words, in the business of paternalism. In myriad ways we substitute our judgement for the judgement of the folks we help, as we struggle to determine how we ought to best support those folks.

Ideally, “we” could ask needy person X (call her Jesse) what she needs and then give it to her. Radical, I know. Rarely, however, is this how charity or “aid” works. Charities usually have external funding: Donors. Charities must answer to the people who give them money, and typically have their own agenda and expectations, and all of these might not agree with us or with Jesse.

And OK, maybe Jesse doesn’t know what she needs, but I bet she does, at least as much as any of us truly know what we need to flourish. (Quick, what’s the silver bullet solution to all that ails you?! And don’t say more money, because we don’t accept that answer from poor people.)

Moreover, it’s not just charities — most of us are paternalistic. It is hard to see a person struggling with a problem I don’t (acknowledge, anyway, that I) have, and not believe I have information about their situation that if only they would listen could help them in some way. Some of our best, most virtuous impulses are paternalistic.

So it’s complicated, but Keenan’s concerns feel important. All things equal, less paternalism is better than more. It seems also like money is less paternalistic, though the program Keenan visited still limited spending to certain staple foods. (I’m reminded of an essay on the topic of development aid in the Global South, which argued for better instead of more choice. What if all the options to choose from suck? More on this later.)

Food banks/charities are inefficient?

What then of Keenan’s second point, that food banking is inefficient?

Again, on the face of it, this claim seems fairly straightforward. There are myriad middle people involved in food banking, all of whom we cut out when we give Jesse 98¢ to buy her beans.

However, this is somewhat misleading because it fails to consider the different ways we and other agencies leverage financial donations. With a $20 gift, the Food Bank of Waterloo Region can feed a family of four for four days. In their soon to be published annual report on the cost of the nutritious food basket (here’s the 2013 report), researchers from our Public Health department found that it costs a family of four about $26 a day ($185 a week) to eat well in this Region.

So the food bank needs $20 to provide what, out of pocket, would cost me $104.  The four days of food bank food is not the same as the four days of food from the Region’s Nutritious Food Basket. Still, it seems like a good deal.

Now some rough math about our specific program. Our yearly budget is $400,000, most of which is wages for six full time staff. Last year we served about 20,000 people. Instead of giving people food, most of us could quit our jobs and give each person $20 once. Ouch. Last year we gave out 30,000 hampers, which translates into $13 a hamper.

It’s surprisingly tricky to say what our hampers are “worth.” Our food is donated and our hampers do not necessarily include the food items our patrons might regularly purchase. We often have artisanal bread ($6 a loaf?) and organic Greek yogurt ($4?), which are unaffordable on a fixed income.  So it probably makes sense to add up the value of generic versions of each item you might get on a given day.

Whatever the exact value of our hampers, recall the nutritious basket calculation: a family of four needs $26 a day to eat well. For about $13, we are providing a hamper worth, by that calculation, about $75. I’m not going to stake my good name on these exact numbers, but the differences are great enough that my point stands: we leverage financial donations well, and with our partners we attract massive amounts of food donations that we quickly share with our community.

Architecture of giving

Recall the massive infrastructure Keenan describes:

If my neighbour can’t afford a can of soup, I could just give him 99 cents to buy one from the store at the end of our street.

Or I could go to that store myself, buy a can of soup and then take it to a donation drop-off point, where a truck will pick it up and take it to a warehouse in Etobicoke, where it will be sorted and stored until it is packed back into a truck and sent to a local food-bank location, where it will be unpacked and sorted and shelved and then later put into a basket that my neighbour can pick up at some point and bring home.

This is true in our region as well. We receive food from the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, which has a small army of volunteers sorting food, driving transport trucks, and lots in between. The FBWR is the backbone of Waterloo Region’s Food Assistance Network, but they depend entirely on private fundraising, winning grant money, and a small fee from member agencies like ours.

Elsewhere I have discussed the role of volunteers at our program. Last year about 150 volunteers gave us work that was roughly equal to another six full time staff positions.

These volunteers are, of course, not paid.  I have always felt that people should be paid for their work (given actually existing social and economic relations) and that ideally their pay should somehow reflect the value they contribute to society. Paying another six staff instead of relying on free volunteer labour would probably cost close to $200,000, assuming we paid them something like a living wage.

On top of this are myriad opportunity costs, especially for our patrons. These folks must take time to get here, often on the bus (or many buses), when they could be in school, or at work, or looking for work, or just generally not standing awkwardly in a lobby full of other strangers feeling awkward  and wishing they were anywhere else. Yes, everyone has to spend time meeting their basic material needs, whether it’s grocery store or food bank or ice fishing or climbing a coconut tree. But this particular opportunity cost for our patrons is one of many, which add up to a major cost to our entire society.

Are we giving the gift of health?

This is the point a range of researchers continue to provide a range of evidences for: poverty is expensive, and treating symptoms is far more costly than addressing root causes. Symptoms include diabetes, obesity, food insecurity, getting evicted regularly, depending on payday loans, having your wages garnished by aggressive temp agencies, being stressed and having bad teeth. Causes include being not white or not heterosexual, and also insufficient affordable housing, inadequate social assistance rates, a minimum wage below the poverty line, shallow democracy in a deeply capitalistic society. In fact, and I think the list above makes this clear, for the average person it’s hard to separate cause and effect — symptoms and their origins are in various complicated ways mutually reinforcing.

The fewer hoops we make people living on a low income jump through, the better, because they have more important stuff to do with their time, like cook the nutritious meals we demand they eat, or find the jobs we insist are available and viable and their ticket out of poverty, or organize themselves into powerful movements that work for structural change.

Settling up 

So does Keenan’s argument — give money, not food, because it is less paternalistic and more efficient — hold up?

In many ways, he’s right. Letting people buy what they want is less paternalistic, and that’s a good thing. Giving money is more efficient, in that it cuts out all the volunteers sorting potatoes, the truck drivers picking up almost-sour yogurt, and all those warehouses. But giving money is less efficient, because that infrastructure allows us to do a lot, for many, with a little (money). Moreover, all this efficiency talk makes it hard to account for other significant losses, for example the rich network of human relationships, the community of wonderful folks who are the food assistance network in this area. This last point deserves more time and thought, and I have talked about volunteering elsewhere, but it would be a loss, and it would be sad.

So, it’s complicated. In the last third of this series, coming soon, I question the question we started with. Give a man a can, and he eats for a day. Give a man some money, and he buys what he wants. But what if his boat has a hole in it or all the fish in the river have three eyes?


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