In my days as SHARE’s director of fund development, it was the busiest and the most rewarding time of the year. I would put out the call and the community would respond; neighbours, businesses, friends and community leaders from all over the Tri-Cities would come together to support our local food bank. We would work together to fill those shelves to make sure that there was food for December. This abundance would last through the spring and sometimes into the summer because we are a generous community.
The spirit of generosity continues and our community responds whenever the call is put
out that the food bank shelves are almost empty. It’s wonderful to see and to experience a community come together to make sure that we are feeding our neighbours and our neighbours’ children.
And yet, I wonder if this is the best response we can muster. Food banks were intended to be a temporary measure during the recession of the mid-1980s. There was a crisis and Canadian communities responded. Food banks popped up all across our nation. However, what was supposed to be a temporary response to a crisis has become a permanent fixture of the poverty relief landscape.
Handing out food does little to reduce or prevent poverty. The $20 to $40 worth of groceries that families receive every two weeks might fill a small gap in a monthly budget, but it doesn’t solve the problem of being poor and unable to purchase enough groceries to properly feed one’s family.
I have often been struck by the courage that it takes for these food bank recipients to actually turn to the food bank to help feed their families. In over 20 years of working or volunteering for SHARE, I have never come across anyone who wanted to make use of the food bank. If anything, I witnessed shame and embarrassment: shame of being poor and embarrassment of having failed to independently feed one’s family.
Food bank recipients are always tremendously grateful that the food bank is available to them, but their desire has always been to go to the grocery store just like food bank donors. Their preference is to purchase the foods that their family likes to eat and to get the food when they need it, not just every other Wednesday as is the case with the SHARE Food Bank.
The food bank recipients that I have met never intended to make use of a food bank. Most of the stories I have heard from food bank recipients were related to unanticipated poverty where a sudden illness, an unexpected pregnancy, a series of misfortunes or a job loss has left them struggling to manage high housing costs, increasing tuition fees and other costs that have left them hungry at the end of the month. Some recipients are on social assistance or disability and, with high housing and transportation costs, there just isn’t enough money for food at the end of the month. There are many paths to poverty – none of which are planned. If there are many paths into poverty, then there must also be many paths out of poverty. Giving away food is not a way out of poverty. This is still just a crisis response.
The SHARE Food Bank has seen a dramatic increase in the number of food bank users over the past five years. We are also seeing an increase in the number of food bank recipients who have some form of employment but are not earning enough to cover their expenses. About 26 per cent of families who use the food bank have employment, EI or pension income. We are also seeing more children being fed by food bank donations; more so here in the Tri-Cities than the B.C. average. Both of these trends are alarming.
While we are a generous community, what is our community capacity to continue to fill food bank shelves as the food bank lineups continue to grow ever bigger? Are we, as a community, going to be able to keep up with the demand? Is this truly a sustainable model for addressing poverty in our community? As demand increases, how will our food banks continue to meet the needs? As we continue to put our focus on crisis response and food banks, should we also be calling for a response that addresses the source of the crisis?
All of these questions leave me wondering if the call that gets put out to support our food bank every year should have an added call. Yes, we ought to support the local food bank when the call gets put out, but perhaps it’s time for a different call out on behalf of the food bank.
Perhaps it’s time for the community, those who generously support the food bank, to put the call back out to our community leaders and politicians of every political stripe, of every level of government. Perhaps it’s time for creative, collaborative solutions from our political representatives to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction plan that will reduce the demand for food and financial donations every Christmas and throughout the rest of the year.
Perhaps we ought to address poverty by reducing and preventing it, not just by feeding it. It’s like having a fire department and all it does is put out fires. A good thing to have when there is a crisis, but shouldn’t we also put our minds and energy into preventing the fires from happening in the first place?
Is it enough that community leaders and politicians are calling for donations to the food bank? Should there be a response from these leaders to identify and develop policies at all levels of government to prevent and reduce poverty?
According to the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, Coquitlam ranks 97th of 98 communities across British Columbia for rental housing affordability – this is considered “critical.” In Port Moody and Port Coquitlam, rental housing affordability is a bit better and only considered “severe” with a rank of 73rd and 74th in the province.
We know that housing affordability contributes to the overall experience of poverty. When rent takes up more than 30 per cent of the household income, families are in a more precarious financial position. Their ability to deal with a sudden illness or a job loss becomes more challenging.
The City of Coquitlam has been working on an Affordable Housing Strategy for years. It was on the agenda when I became a councillor in 2008 and it has yet to be adopted by council. I hope the public gets to review it soon and that they ask council to ensure that the proposed policies will actually help with housing affordability. I would invite residents of Port Moody and Port Coquitlam to ask the same of their councils.
The provincial government can end the child support clawback that was started when the BC Liberals took power. Children of single parents on disability have every penny of their child support clawed back from the disability benefit, leaving many of these children and their parents having to turn to the food bank in order to fill their financial gap.
I wonder if this generous community can put out the call in 2015 to all three levels of government to address the underlying issues that contribute to poverty. Can we, as a community, ask those with some ability to prevent and reduce poverty what they have in mind to reduce the use of food banks?
Local governments can develop housing affordability strategies that include: replacement of affordable rental accommodations, building an affordable housing fund from density bonuses, partnerships with other levels of government and the private sector to increase affordable housing stock, and setting aside land that is designated for affordable housing projects.
The provincial government can end the child support clawback for single parents on disability and develop a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for the province. The federal government can develop a National Housing Strategy, bring back financial incentives that would encourage developers to build purpose rental housing and develop a national poverty reduction plan. All of our elected leaders have a role to play in reducing and preventing poverty in our community.
So the next time any of our community politicians put out the call for the food bank, be sure to respond by supporting the food bank and ask each of us, in return, what we will do to reduce or prevent poverty in our community.
We each have a role to play – some to respond to the crisis by making a donation supporting the food bank, and for others to take leadership and promote action on poverty reduction.
Selina Robinson is the MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville. She was a Coquitlam city councillor from 2008-13 and volunteered and worked for SHARE Family Community Services for more than 20 years.