Hungry hearts: A grassroots alternative to food banks in small town Ontario

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"Woodstock is a small town with big city problems," says Steve Giuliano, a self-described "community chaplain." Nestled in southern Ontario's Oxford County, the town of 38,000 has more than its share of problems. Substance abuse and unemployment throttle development.

Operation Sharing, a charity run by local churches, is discovering new ways of helping the less fortunate. Giuliano, Operation Sharing's director, has found success in eschewing traditional forms of humanitarianism for more innovative programs.

Seven years ago, Operation Sharing abandoned its food bank, opting instead for Foods for Friends, a system that uses non-transferable cards with a pre-determined amount of money. People who qualify for the program can use the card to buy non-taxable groceries. Locals are asked to donate a quarter to the program at the checkout of participating stores.

"We always hear about whether we need a food bank or not," explains Giuliano. "It always seems like that or nothing. This offers a more progressive step forward."

Because the card stipulates non-taxable items, users can take advantage of real food instead of the processed stuff food banks usually have to offer.

"Whenever you see those food bank bins, do you ever see a loaf of bread in them?" asks Chris Chapman, a local businessman who manages Foodland. "A pack of chicken thighs? A head of lettuce? Some tomatoes? No, it's usually processed food."

Since coming into vogue during the '80s, food banks have entrenched the hunger problem. Dependence on food banks has been rising historically with a notable spike during the recession. Last year, in the Greater Toronto Area alone, there were 1,123,500 visits to food banks, an 18 per cent increase since the pre-recession period in 2008.

Moreover, the cost of hunger is decimating Canada's economy. The poor are disproportionately affected by heart disease and diabetes, costing billions in health care. According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, poverty costs approximately $7.6 billion a year for health care nationally.

As André Picard observes in the Globe and Mail, "low income is the single biggest predictor of poor health for individuals, and the best single measure of the overall health of a population."

Furthermore, food banks ensconce class hierarchy. Food banks relegate users to a space that is separate from mainstream society, disallowing any kind of interaction. This stigmatizes food bank users and can even discourage people from taking advantage of services out of fear of being identified as poor.

The Foods for Friends card gives users a sense of dignity that food banks cannot. Users can shop around the store, and use the card discreetly, unlike the immediately recognizable food stamps used south of the border.

"I've worked in the grocery business for forty plus years," says Chapman. "I've stuffed countless police cars and fire trucks with peanut butter and pasta, and sent them off to a church basement somewhere where we've hidden that problem away. I think this is the best way of dealing with this."

Robyn Hoyland was one of the first people to use Foods for Friends. Fiercely independent, she used to coach baseball and soccer and was a taxi driver for twenty-six years. "I worked all my life," she says, "so it's really hard to have to depend on other people."

Hoyland, a single mother of two, was born with spinal stenosis, a condition which was exacerbated by a collision with a bus. She needed surgery to put rods in her neck, leaving a long white scar over her left shoulder. Now, she can only walk short distances and uses a motorized chair to get around.

"The card makes me feel like I'm still independent," she says.

However, Hoyland does take issue with being able to buy only non-taxable items.

"There shouldn't be a taxable/non-taxable distinction, because you're still segregating people," she says.

Giuliano understands Hoyland's frustration. Eventually he would like to extend the card to include non-taxable items. But Giuliano is hesitant to move too quickly.

"I knew our community's tolerance for change was going to take time," he says. "If they saw their neighbour going through with five bags of chips, they might not give a quarter. People needed time to catch up to the concept. They still do."

Now, though, the time may be right for change of attitude. Municipalities and grassroots organizations are picking up the slack where federal and provincial governments have left off. Popular mayor Naheed Nenshi has introduced a new imitative to cut Calgary's poverty in half over the next decade, signalling a potential sea change in how Canadians view poverty.

For Giuliano, one of the greatest rewards of Foods for Friends is seeing people who were once marginalized out interacting in the community.

"It's wonderful to watch someone pushing a cart with a calculator and a grocery list, who used to use a food bank," he says.

"It's the bananas that screw me up," admits Scott Rublee.

Like Hoyland, Rublee was one of the first people to use Foods for Friends. An alcoholic over fifty years old, Rublee has no trade or marketable skills, and is struggling to find employment.

For Rublee, the big thing is choice.

"I appreciate everything the Sally Anne offers," he says, "but there is no choice in what you get. With the card, at least you have a choice. And it teaches you how to shop. It's a lesson it itself."

Spending most of his days applying for jobs and waiting in vain for a reply, Foods for Friends also gives Rublee the chance to get out of the house and meet people.

"I was in line at the grocery," says Rublee, "and I realize I'm over by a buck twenty-five. I was looking at my stuff, trying to pick what I could take out, and this guy taps me on the shoulder, and he says, 'Here you go,' and gives me a toonie. I said, 'Wow, man. Thank you so much.' And he said, 'No problem. I've been there.' That was really cool."


Brad Dunne is a freelance writer from St. John's, Newfoundland, currently based in Toronto. He maintains a blog at

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