For many, access to food still a challenge

Hunger is as cruel a reality in Canada as it is overseas. More than 800,000 Canadians visit food banks every month

GUELPH, ON/ Troy Media/ – Canadians spend a great deal on food – more than $100 billion per year. However, we spend much less than we used to, relatively speaking.

Each Canadian spends $2,700 on average in food annually; one of the lowest amounts on earth. Only a few industrialized countries offer their citizens a more affordable food basket.

But while most of us are literally spoiled, many people still can’t afford to eat in our country. More than 800,000 Canadians visit food banks every month, many of them children. In short, our food system is working well, but we’re neglecting some of our fellow citizens.

An increasing number of Canadians rely on food banks, and many believe that trend will continue. Food banks generally see citizens from both ends of the life continuum make use of their services. A greater number of seniors living on a fixed income are expected to require support, while students coping with higher tuition fees have also recently used food banks in higher numbers. The middle class and the working poor are growing markets where we could also see economic casualties. For many Canadians in a wide range of economic contexts, access to food remains a challenge. From time to time, they all need a safe and reliable place to go.

The role of food banks in our society has never been so vital. The old adage that suggests that they should work their way out of existence is dangerously short-sighted. We need them more than ever. Here is why.

Food banks tend to cater to a market governments generally believe they have failed. As a result, they avoid talking about them, which is why most food banks operate without any public funding. Most Canadians are not aware of this. Policies are put in place by governments to allow wealth to be created and to support everything we need to function as a society. Undeniably, capitalism has proven itself to be a sound wealth generator. What capitalism is ridiculously ill equipped for, however, is to equitably distribute prosperity.

Governments can of course offset our economies’ inability to do so, but the execution of this assistance can be protracted. To temporarily support food insecure consumers, a nurturing place is necessary.


We need food banks to continue their important work, but they should also become more efficient and more strategic. For years, running a food bank meant that their managers needed to be good at warehousing. This is no longer true. People visit food banks for an array of reasons. Guests often also seek comfort, attention, and a meeting place to share their problems and experiences. Some even require medical assistance to address ongoing mental illnesses. Food banks are beginning to recognize that they are in the larger business of wellness, not only of food security. Many are now dealing with the minds and hearts of their guests, and not just their stomachs.

At times, however, food banks can be their own worst enemies. In some markets, food banks compete with each other in seeking donations. Some are faith-based, and some are established by an individual who is deeply passionate about the people in a specific neighbourhood. In this case, competition dilutes resources, making the system less efficient and more confusing for those who need them. As demand for food banks grows, this issue should be addressed, not by eliminating points of service, but rather by developing better distribution practices and a stronger portfolio of services. And why not charge a nominal fee for services rendered. It may sound counter-intuitive, but this may allow guests not to feel that they are a burden to society. Dignity and respect go a long way.

Food banks are critical managers of the negative externalities of the market. Downward economic cycles and ineffective economic or monetary policies will inevitably continue to generate a percentage of need in the future, and food banks should provide an immediate, and hopefully temporary, safety net.

Most food banks in Canada are well managed, but they need our help. For many Canadians, there is a false social stigma attached to food banks. We should think of ways to address this problem, so more of us can become engaged. In doing so, we remind ourselves that hunger is a cruel reality here at home as well as overseas. Helping developing countries is a great achievement for our country, but we should not also forget that all Canadians have a right to food.


– Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is associate dean at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.



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