Is It Time to Close Food Banks and Feeding Programs?

Social policy in the some of the world’s wealthiest countries has failed. Countries in which large numbers of the populace have to rely on food banks or other charitable feeding programs have divided their citizens into “us” and “them” and tarred “them” with the brush of “less worthy.”

No matter how fresh and healthy the food, no matter how barrier-free the application process, no matter how friendly and helpful the staff, food banks are a humiliating and inadequate means for governments to avoid responsibility for basic human justice, which includes the fundamental right to be free from hunger.

Food banks started as emergency measures in the 1980s but quickly became institutionalized within the non-profit sector. Thirty years later they continue to rely on charitable donations to fund their operations and to feed the masses who come through their doors. As Elaine Power wrote in July 25 in an essay for the Globe and Mail (“It’s time to close Canada’s food banks”):

Food banks have become a serious obstacle in the fight against poverty. By promising to “end hunger” by feeding hungry Canadians, they provide a comforting illusion that no one is hungry – or if they are, it’s their own fault. They shelter us from the harsh reality that millions lack the basic necessities of life.

Food banks have spread throughout the richest nations of the world. France has them. So do Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Jill Reilly wrote in the April 18th Guardian that UK food banks fed over 60,000 people last year and expect to feed over 100,000 this year. Food Banks Canada says a staggering 900,000 Canadians turn to them every month. Feeding America‘s network of food banks says it feeds 37 million Americans each year. Foodbank Australia provides food for 88,000 meals every day, 80 percent of it to low-income families.

Next: Food Banks As Signs of Moral Deficit

These are shocking figures. A society that sees charitable feeding programs as acceptable is a society in decline. In his 2002 report, Food Banks and Food Security: Welfare Reform, Human Rights and Social Policy, Lessons from Canada?,  Graham Riches wrote:

The rise of food banks in Canada is concrete evidence both of the breakdown of the social safety net and the commodification of social assistance. As such, they undermine the state”s obligation, as ratified in international conventions, to respect, protect and fulfill the human right to food. They enable governments to look the other way and neglect food poverty and nutritional health and well-being.

Writing in the August 24, 2012 Guardian, Richard Seymour identified “a shift from welfare to the punitive management of poverty.” Neoliberal policies have moved wealth upward and pushed people into joblessness and increased poverty. He gave the example of the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives:

The idea was that to be unemployed, addicted, homeless or hungry was to have merely a personal misfortune, reflecting personal failure. The recipient of such welfare is thus not just dependent, but at a moral deficit. The flipside of this paternalistic humanitarianism was the fear and loathing for the poor, which in the UK has been expressed in the spiteful locution “chav” [defined by Oxford Dictionaries online as "a young lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of (real or imitation) designer clothes"].

However, it would be mistaken to suppose that such precarity is restricted to the bottom rung of society. The effects of precarity run right up the chain of social classes and strata. While the urban poor are the most directly blighted, poverty and malnourishment act as a whip to discipline the whole workforce. The threat is not just of perpetual insecurity and hunger, but also of losing the status of respectability conferred by employment, and thus “self-reliance”. And as Shanene Thorpe discovered, as welfare is shredded, the boundaries of respectability are shifting upwards, including more people in the ranks of the culpable “underclass”. Those fortunate enough to stay just the right side of this divide will have added motivation to be compliant; docile toward social superiors, viciously competitive towards everyone else. Now we are all precarious.

In spite of the hard work and compassion of people who operate, donate to, and benefit from food banks and other feeding programs, only a fraction of the people who are food insecure can be served by them. Their resources are too limited to keep hunger at bay for their millions of clients. They can do nothing for the millions more who never walk through their doors.

Next: Time to Make Food Banks Unnecessary?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Democracy may be a bit tattered these days, but it is not dead. The Occupy Movement is a reminder of that. Last November Yes! Magazine published a thought-provoking list of “Ten Ways the Occupy Movement Changes Everything.” It is worth revisiting the whole list, but the tenth is one that should give the 99% a sense of hope:

We have reclaimed our power. Instead of looking to politicians and leaders to bring about change, we can see now that the power rests with us. Instead of being victims to the forces upending our lives, we are claiming our sovereign right to remake the world.”

What do you think, Care2 readers? Can we address food security and social equality in ways that preserve human dignity? Can we agree that adequate food is a right for all, not something to be given as charity? Can we stitch up our tattered safety nets so we can close food banks and feeding programs without sacrificing the well being of those who currently rely on them?

Thirty years ago food banks were a stopgap, emergency measure. Instead of perpetuating them, shouldn’t we be making them unnecessary?

Related Care2 Stories

The G8′s Responsibility to Tackle Child Hunger

Bringing Garden Fresh into Food Banks

More Hungry Canadians: Canada’s Food Bank Use on the Rise

Catholic Food Shelf Rejects Food from Planned Parenthood

U.N. to Canada: Ignoring Hunger Won’t Make It Go Away

Photos 1 and 3: Thinkstock; Photo 2: Boston Food Bank, via Wikimedia Commons


Barbara S.
Barbara S.1 years ago

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John Mills
John Mills1 years ago

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a             y m.
g d c5 years ago


Lika S.
Lika P5 years ago

I believe in giving to food pantries and soup kitchens. Too many people would starve to death without them, so I thank God they are around to help.

change twentytwelve

Now Man reveals his true face, the face of to many that could care a less about the poor, or children not getting enough to eat. Notice the Flat-Out implication, (WE, I've been there)is how somehow people are lazy, leeches,bums, forgetting that we only have today, and tomorrow one could find themselves in the very same position. It's like saying if you don't have money for College, just ask your parents, since we all have parents with bank accounts here and offshore (LIAR, Tax-dodger, 14% on 20,000,000.?). All of you making these Judgements have you ever been to a food bank, ever volunteered at one, or volunteered to help ANYONE? You've built yourself large, Expensively furnished, GLASS Houses, so watch out for the glass, for we all live in one to varying degrees.

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Wow, Martin, pretty cynical. The food banks around here are funded by nobody. They are run completely from donations......private people, retailers, etc. Without donations, they'd close down. I believe our local one has only one paid employee.......the manager and I don't know who pays him. Everyone else is a volunteer.

Martin Stride
Martin Stride5 years ago

The UK government is big on supplanting tax-funded welfare for those they've displaced, with charitable giving. It's all part of their usual trick of "replacing" something instead of simply scrapping it, with something which they know won't work or which they'll quietly ditch a few years later.

Food banks funded through donations imply that the very existence of these people is under the ken and at the discretion of the rich. The reality is they've stolen from these people their capacity to make a living.

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Stella, I think it's fairly obvious that food banks differ from community to community. I live in rural Pierce County (Washington State) and the food bank here is very community oriented. My daughter and youngest grandson are now staying with me and she has signed up because neither of them has any income. She had to provide mail showing my address to be eligible. Where she was living, the food bank doesn't come close to the one here, according to her. I've seen stories on TV about food banks in Seattle and they don't seem to compare, either.

Maybe the rules about permanent addresses can be manipulated, and all I know is that this one will not accept a Post Office box as one. A physical street address must be used. Since it is so rural, probably very few homeless. The physical address is to prevent abuse of the system. I'm sure people do exchange stuff outside sometimes, but just never have seen that happen. Food baskets tend to all contain the same stuff......just more of the items if more people living in that home. I have had people approach me when I'm gettng the outdated "critter bread" and ask me if they could have certain things.....certainly they can! I get it for my horses only. Not sure why they didn't just take it off the shelf before I got there at closing time, though.

Stella Ward
Stella Ward5 years ago

Diane L. at the local food bank I went to they also required a permanent address, with proofs of that address, but those who were homeless were allowed to use a P.O. Box that was offered to them at the welfare stations. If they did not have at least that address, then they were just tough out of luck. And as I stated in my previous post, the people found their own solution for such situations which was to exchange foods with each other to get what they needed.

Diane L.
Diane L5 years ago

Summer, you're still whining. If you can't afford food, period on what you earn or receive in welfare, disability, wherever your income is derived, then what food banks provide is better than the alternative. NOBODY suggested or stated that it was the best choices available and why would it be? If food banks provided what you are suggesting they SHOULD, then maybe I should just refuse my pension and state only my S.S. as income so I can qualify to get food baskets from them, as it sounds a whole lot better than what I can buy for myself now. I eat pretty well, since I actually DO have my own veggie garden to supplement what I have to buy, as well as berry bushes and fruit trees. Winter is harder, but then I also have a freezer so I get by.

It sounds like you've "made your own bed" and you are complaining about the results of your bed making. I don't mean to criticize you personally, but is anyone forcing you to live where you do, drive a car and work as a janitor (and I know most janitors earn a pretty good hourly wage)? Your husband is a student. Fine. Many students work full time as well, not just on the week-end. Life's tough.