Image: Joel Muniz/Unsplash

The first food bank opened its doors in Alberta in 1981. After the recession hit in 1980, food banks and similar emergency food support programs began to pop up as temporary responses to the increasing levels of poverty across the country. That’s right — temporary.

Today, we are faced with a global pandemic. Hunger is becoming a more visible problem in the mainstream, and food banks are at the centre of the media’s attention. The Canadian government recently announced another $100 million added to the Emergency Food Security Fund, a significant portion of which will go directly into Food Banks Canada.

It’s clear that people need emergency access to food right now, and food banks are able to provide this. They are certainly an essential service. But if food banks were initially framed as a temporary solution (to a completely different crisis), why are we still relying on them almost 40 years later?

‘Good white saviours’

The birth of what would eventually evolve into the food bank framework began not with the state, but with bourgeois “charitable undertakings.” Throughout the early 1800s, wealthy white women collected and distributed food to the poor.

What exactly motivated these endeavours? These charitable projects were steeped in Christian ideals of morality. Language like helping the needy, serving others, and doing good was often used to describe these Christian projects in charity.

At first glance, this type of rhetoric may seem innocent enough. But if we dig deeper, dangerous traces of moral superiority and white saviorism begin to surface. Language like this positions the “helper” as a selfless “giver,” and deserving of praise for their altruism.

As a result, these bourgeois “handouts” relied on a sort of indebtedness from recipients to the people “helping” them. This laid the historical groundwork for how emergency food support programs now position our “virtuous” helpers and “needy” clients.

In a recent piece on the current state of food banks, Paul Taylor remarked, “We demand gratitude for what we’ve given.”

In a country where food has been recognized as a human right by the state (see the Universal Declaration on Human Rights), emergency access to food should not feel like a handout. People should not feel a sense of obligation to the person or institution who provided that food.

These historic notions of generosity and servitude are pervasive today, lingering still in the ways that we position emergency access to food as an act of charity. As long as we talk about food in the context of charity, we continue to rid the state of its responsibility to deliver on the right to food.

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps

After the Canadian state was founded, new ideas about the poor began to materialize and spread — ones rooted in capitalism. A “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality dominated. One 1877 Toronto Daily Globe editorial declared, “We do not advocate a system which would leave them to starve, but we do say that if they are ever to be taught economical and saving habits they must understand that the public have no idea of making them entirely comfortable in the midst of their improvidence.”

The government’s response to poverty was the widespread development of workhouses, where poor people were required to submit to “labour testing” in order to access basic needs. People who did not participate would be denied their food for the day. Although the state denied advocating a system which left people to starve, they certainly built one.

We see the legacy of this needing to “prove” eligibility with the means-testing happening today at our food banks. Early on in the pandemic, Graham Riches asked in The Tyee, “If we are all in this together, why not trust all food bank applicants?”

We find the answer in this loaded history. The state has always sought to sort poor people into categories: those who contribute to the economy, and those who can’t (and have the very-difficult-to-obtain documents to demonstrate why), making them “deserving” of assistance. Those who are not working, and don’t have the receipts to show why, are considered not worthy of state support.

As a result, emergency food support programs today are structured using an incredibly reductive opposition of deserving versus undeserving. We see this reflected in the ways we talk about food banks. A recent discursive study highlighted the media’s emphasis on food banks as being a resource for lone mothers and university students. These are the people we are conditioned to understand as “worthy of empathy,” people who are just trying to get their lives on the right track. 

Food bank leadership knows these are the stories we want to hear. They also know that these are the stories that help secure funding — from both corporate donors and the state. Narratives like these dominate grant reports, with funders often requiring programs to track the number of “deserving poor” served.

It’s not uncommon to see the “Which of these populations will your program serve?” question on government grant applications, followed by a checklist of neatly categorized state-approved “vulnerable” identities.

Monitoring these types of metrics allows the government to keep an eye on the people accessing these emergency supports. From an arm’s length, they are able to increase surveillance of the most marginalized with tactics like these. And without lifting a finger, they still get to pick and choose who makes the cut.

A woman’s place is in the soup kitchen

Emergency food support in Canada has often been carried on the backs of women. The notion of “feeding” itself is feminized, associated with “maternal” instinct and duty.

With more and more volunteer organizations popping up during the 1900s, the state was able to download the burden of dealing with hunger to the women who ran these organizations. Volunteer groups like the YWCA took on the responsibility of preparing and distributing food to poor and elderly people in cities across the country.

The keyword to take note of here is “volunteer” (read: unpaid). It is no surprise that, being written off as women’s work (and, as it evolved, racialized women’s work), the labour associated with emergency food support has been largely devalued, and thus, underpaid, or in many cases, completely unpaid.

Food banks and other similar programs today receive minimal funding, leaving little room for overhead costs. The small amount of staffing money available means paid frontline work in the field hovers around the minimum wage mark.

This has generally led programs into the hands of two groups of people: middle-to-upper class white women who can afford to take a lower-paying job, because they have access to intergenerational wealth (or a partner at home who can financially support them); and BIPOC women, many of whom do not have access to these resources, and are often living paycheque to paycheque.

With their hands forced, food banks must rely on volunteer work — on the goodwill of citizens who just want to help. This begs the question, who has the capacity to “help?” As might be expected, it would seem that many of the people who have both time and labour to give for free are white, middle-to-upper class folks.

This has only further cemented the class divisions that characterized earlier iterations of emergency food support.

Passing the buck

By design, emergency food programs with foundations built on volunteer labour prop up a broader failing system of state support. When our work depends on the labour of unpaid “helpers,” we give the government yet another out.

This state-sanctioned “passing the buck” was later mirrored with the birth of what we know now as the food bank. In the wake of the economic collapse of the 1980s, food banks were opened and operated by communities, rather than the government. Trade unions, unemployed action centres, cultural and religious groups took on this task of keeping their neighbours fed, often relying on corporate donations to operate.

As it has developed over time, this framework for emergency food support cemented the state’s arm’s-length governance approach to the issue of food insecurity. What began as a temporary community-driven response has now become the government’s go-to solution for a problem that is clearly no longer (and never was) temporary.

Instead of effecting new meaningful changes, the state has focused on funnelling money into emergency food support initiatives — both through government granting opportunities and legislation that incentivizes corporate giving.

If not food banks, then what?

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem of food insecurity across Canada, with 10.5 per cent of Canadians reporting experiencing food insecurity in 2018, jumping to 14.6 per cent in 2020. Food bank usage is on the rise as a result, despite the introduction of CERB and its successor programs. Although they may be “a step in the right direction,” the fact of the matter is that these government relief initiatives simply do not cover the costs of living in cities like Toronto.

What’s more, food bank data often does not paint a comprehensive picture of what food insecurity really looks like in the lives of Canadians. A 2013 survey of low-income families in Toronto showed that only 23 per cent of them accessed food bank services — “by the time families are food insecure they face much more than a lack of food. They are likely behind on bill payments, rent and other basic necessities.”

By relying on responses that address the symptoms of a problem (the immediate need for food) instead of the root causes of the problem itself (e.g. structural poverty), we trick ourselves into thinking that something is being done to change things. So, when the Canadian government invests millions of dollars into the expansion of food bank services, they are also investing in maintaining the status quo.

In order for emergency food support programs like these to cease existing, the state would need to take on the burden of making systemic changes that ensure not only emergency, but everyday access to food for all Canadians. These changes would need to stretch beyond the realm of food to consider how our access to food is embedded in structures of poverty, colonialism and white supremacy.

And, perhaps most importantly, these changes would mean that the government could no longer offload responsibility onto the non-profit sector, volunteers and communities for their own right to food.

Jade Guthrie a food justice advocate, passionate about her work engaging communities through food. She sits on the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, and is a member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, a volunteer-run political collective which strives to promote the rights of migrant farm workers.

Image: Joel Muniz/Unsplash