Food banks started in Canada many years ago as what is often described as a "band-aid solution" to the growing issue of hunger. Food banks were supposed to be temporary, local groups that fed the poor, while the government developed the official resolution to this societal problem. Unfortunately, this resolution was never found, and food banks are now a staple in each corner of Canada.
Since the start of food banking, there have been many misconceptions about the people that run them, and the people who use them. Food banks are so often criticized for not helping solve the issue of hunger, and actually doing more harm than good. Many see food banks as an outdated system, providing the unemployed or homeless with expired and low quality food. For some, food banking is simply perceived as another ineffective system, waiting to be abused.
These views are outdated, and frankly wrong. Each day I hear about all of the challenges and successes that our food banks and their clients experience. Food banks in Ontario are providing a necessary service for people who are in need, so why do we look down on this system?
People tend to think they have an idea as to what a food bank client "looks like". Let's set the record straight now. What if I told you that 40 per cent of food bank users are children? Close to half of all food bank clients are boys and girls under the age of 18. A growing number of food bank clients are individuals who work multiple minimum wage jobs. These people are the ever growing socioeconomic group of the working poor. Close to 65 per cent of individuals accessing food banks are rental tenants. When it comes to housing, one quarter of Canadians spend 30 per cent or more of their monthly income on rent and utilities, leaving them susceptible to poverty, homelessness, and yes, hunger.
People rely on food banks for a multitude of reasons. Each person who has accessed a food bank has their own challenges that they must face. Receiving adequate food is a right, it is not a privilege. Food banks do not discriminate against the people that they serve, yet unfortunately, some parts of our society does.
The Ontario Association of Food Banks has over 120 member food banks that serve over 1,100 hunger-relief programs. Together, we feed over 412,000 people each month in this province.
Believe me when I say that food banks do not want to be in business. As a provincial association, a large part of our focus is on advocating on behalf of food banks and the clients that we serve. There is a reason that people are hungry, and it is not because of a lack of food in this country.
In Ontario especially, we have seen the decline of high-paying, union-run, manufacturing jobs. Our post-secondary students are graduating with astronomical debts, and entering a work force with little to no room for them. New families that come to this country looking for better opportunities often have no other choice but to take low-paying jobs. The middle class is shrinking, while the divide between the rich and the poor continues to grow. Combine the troubles of the economy with rising costs in housing and food, as well as cuts to social assistance, and it is no wonder more and more people are turning to food banks for some relief. As an association, these are issues that we consistently bring up when we meet with MPPs and local politicians. Ontario needs an affordable housing strategy, as well as updates to social assistance. People need to be able to make a liveable wage. Maybe then will food banks start to disappear. But for the meantime, food banks are here to stay.
While we continue to advocate on these issues, our food banks are doing all that they can to empower and nourish the thousands of Ontarians that they serve. So many of our food banks run or work in partnership with community gardens, ensuring that their clients have access to local, nutritious, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Through initiatives like Community Harvest Ontario, our network of food banks have rescued thousands of pounds of high quality fresh produce from local farmers' fields that would have gone to waste due to cosmetic reasons.
The Ontario Association of Food Banks is committed to working with local farmers so that together we can help feed those in need. We have started two new programs with Ontario Pork and the Turkey Farmers of Ontario which will launch this fall. These new partnerships will provide food bank clients with consistent healthy, fresh, and local Ontario protein. We have also worked closely with MPP Bob Bailey in his creation of a proposed tax credit for Ontario farmers who donate excess produce to Ontario food banks. As an organization and food bank network, we are committed to promoting local agriculture, and working together to come up with local and sustainable solutions to hunger.
Volunteers and staff at food banks across the province work tirelessly to create programming in local community kitchens, where members of the community can come and learn how to prepare delicious and nutritious foods. These community kitchens serve meal programs, school nutrition programs, and after-school programs. They teach practical and employable skills to people who may be in need of a job. These community kitchens are truly a hub for community building.
There are so many programs and services that food banks provide to clients. Some of our food banks have dentists and public health nurses on site, career counseling and resume writing sessions, and nutrition classes. Food bank staff and volunteers not only provide nourishment, they lend their ears and their hearts to their clients.
The staff and volunteers at food banks in this province are no longer simply providing a "band-aid" solution to hunger. Through local partnerships, advocacy efforts, and hard work, food banks are struggling to be the voice of the thousands of people that we serve. We will not go away until everyone is fed, clothed, and living a life of security.
This Thanksgiving, put your preconceived notions and misconceptions about food banks to rest. Contact your local food bank, get involved, learn about hunger and poverty in your community. If anything else, please remember that we are all more than just a food bank.
To make a donation to the OAFB or to find out about the food bank in your area, please visit www.oafb.ca
By Erin Fotheringham, Membership and Operations Coordinator at the Ontario Association of Food Banks