11/27/2012 08:01 EST | Updated 01/26/2013 05:12 EST

How Food Drives Can Alienate Families


Who are the poor? Are they the people in Africa our North American teenagers go to help? Are they the people in our neighbourhoods who use the food bank?

One local CBC radio station celebrates an annual event called "Sounds of the Season." For an entire day, the radio audience of a number of regular on-air programs is invited to become a studio audience. Listeners are welcome to attend the event and see the faces attached to the voices they listen to all year long. The price of admission is a donation of a food item to the local food bank. It is clear that each year this CBC event makes a significant contribution toward the food bank's annual goal. We should be celebrating this. So why am I feeling so troubled?

I spend a lot of time in schools and in faculties of education talking to students and teachers about rights and freedoms, about inclusion and diversity -- about ways to stop seeing the world in terms of "them" and "us" so that we can listen to one another and work together. This annual event is beginning to feel a lot like "them" and "us" to me.

Who are the listeners to the radio? Could they all be people who have sufficient funds to make donations? Aren't any of the listeners people who themselves use food banks? If the radio tells them that they have to make a donation in order to attend this annual event, is CBC assuming that only middle class people listen to the radio? What if a food bank client really wanted to attend but felt that he or she would be turned away unless a donation were made? Would this listener simply stay away? Or would the listener see if perhaps there might be one tin of tomatoes previously collected from the food bank that could be donated back again?

I am not trying to single out the CBC as the sole place in which poverty is "othered" -- I am asking us all to look around. To paraphrase Pogo, "I have met the poor and they is us."

What does this "othering" look like in schools? At this time of the year, competitive food drives are a classic way that schools ask students to "give back to the community." Only schools don't usually mean that to be taken literally.

Does your child come home asking for non-perishable food items to bring to class so that his or her class can win a prize? The class which brings in the largest number of tins or the most money for the food bank gets a pizza lunch or coupons from a fast-food restaurant. The teachers and students spur one another on to bring in more and more. And here comes that tin of tomatoes again. The student whose family must use a food bank does not want to be singled out as the one who has not contributed to the food drive, so she has to choose between explaining why there will be no contribution, or will that tin of tomatoes recently received from the food bank be recycled back again?

There is no shame in being poor. But in our efforts to reduce poverty we need to realize that we must come together and find ways to ensure that everyone has enough to eat every day. Drawing lines between those who can make a donation and those who must ask for help is not going to benefit any of us.

Food Bank Use In Canada