Food Banks or Guaranteed Annual Income?

In July 2011, Elaine Power wrote a scathing account of food banks in The Globe and Mail, declaring “they have become a serious obstacle in the fight against poverty” and “it was time to close them down.” Power, at the time an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Toronto, had served on the board of Mission Food Bank and had researched “food, hunger and poverty for 18 years,” as well as volunteering at food banks and actually “eating from a food bank hamper for three days.”  She went on to decry the stated promise that food banks would “end hunger by feeding hungry Canadians,” saying instead that food banks contributed to the widespread belief that “nobody is hungry and if they are it’s their own fault.”

Volunteers at Daily Bread Food Bank, Etobicoke, Ontario. (By US Mission Canada (Toronto Consulate volunteers at food bank) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Volunteers at Daily Bread Food Bank, Etobicoke, Ontario. (Photo by US Mission Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Food banks, said Power, started to appear across Canada in the early 1980s as a “short-term response” to recession-based unemployment, but by the time her piece appeared in 2011, food banks had become “ a normal feature of our landscape.” More than 25 years after they were established to end hunger, demand had increased and more people were accessing what was supposed to be a stopgap solution to the problem. According to Power, food banks have had some 25 years to end hunger and since that has not happened, she questioned whether “we should stop a solution that isn’t working.”

Power was very critical of a system that “lets governments off the hook from an obligation to ensure income security for all” while undermining “social solidarity and cohesion” by dividing us into those who give (us) and those who receive (them).” She spared neither donors, volunteers nor those active in food drives in her critique of the system, stating, somewhat cynically one might think, that their involvement “makes them feel good” but society must look beyond that sense of satisfaction. Her criticism extends to food corporations who supply “edible food they can’t sell” and believe that holding food drives “is good for company morale.”

Power concludes that “food banks can never solve the problem of poverty” and that it’s time to insist that governments be held responsible for ensuring that “all Canadians have a standard of living adequate for health and well being,” but her final statement that food banks are an obstacle to that “political discussion” and therefore must be removed would seem drastic to some.


All the Way to the Bank

As might be expected, a response to Power’s piece was not slow in coming. Executives of The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto were quick to point out that they, as well as Food Banks Canada, have “remained politicized and are tireless advocates for eliminating hunger through improved social security programs.” They insisted they were well aware that “simply providing food will never solve hunger” and that Power’s fight was also “their fight, not to end support for people who are struggling, but to empower, educate and defeat hunger at its root causes.” If academics, policy-makers and anti-poverty advocates “can’t work for a common purpose,” they asked, how can anyone be expected “to listen, let alone act on what we have to say?” They insisted that “providing emergency food service is a small part of a larger reality.” Daily Bread, they stated, “has an entire department dedicated to advocacy services” for the many other issues that contribute to poverty and hunger, including “housing, employment, domestic abuse and health issues.”

Jump ahead to November 2016 and we find, according to a CBC report, that food bank use has been on the rise, up 1.3% from the same time in 2015, but up “28% from March 2008,” according to the Hunger Count 2016 report which indicated that in March 2016, 863,492 people had accessed a food bank in Canada. Nova Scotia had what’s considered a “drastic” 20.9% increase in food bank assistance.

Nick Jennery of Feed Nova Scotia, which distributes food to 147 food banks in the province, acknowledged this, telling the CBC, “We can’t feed ourselves out of the crisis.” According to the report, children account for 35% of food bank users in Canada, while Canadians on pensions make up 8% of users though the number rises to 10% in rural areas. According to Jenney, refugees in Nova Scotia are adding to the count and present a big challenge to at least three provincial food banks. But even in rural areas where there are far fewer refugees, Feed Nova Scotia has seen a 2.3% increase in food bank use since 2015 – much of it from indigenous and elderly people. Half of food bank users are single, 22% are single-parent families, although they make up only 10% of households. First Nations, Meti and Inuit people make up 14% of those receiving food nationally, while that figure rises to 29% in rural areas and 70% in northern Canada, where food prices are up to three times the national average.

Accessing a food bank is not an easy decision for many people who find themselves hungry in Canada. Often, there is a shame associated with it, especially if you have been a contributing member of society and find yourself suddenly unable to provide the basic necessities for yourself and/or your family. Often, according to Elaine Power’s Globe and Mail article, “the only national survey that ever bothered to ask” reported that many would go hungry or choose to leave the food for those who, they tell themselves “really need it.” In fact, according to the CBC report, people will go into debt, sell their belongings and stop paying their bills before going to a food bank. (One assumes that if children are involved, they must swallow their pride sooner rather then later).



All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, and the search for solutions is on in many areas of the country. Food Banks Canada “recommends creating a basic national income to curb the unacceptably high reliance on food banks.” This would “supplant various welfare programs by providing a baseline amount of money to all citizens regardless of whether they work or meet a means test.”

Main Street, Dauphin, Manitoba, 2016

Main Street, Dauphin, Manitoba, 2016 (Photo byy Intermedichbo, own work, [CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The idea is not new: retired Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, appointed to the Upper Chamber in 2005 by then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, told the CBC’s Solomon Israel he first became aware of the notion of a guaranteed annual income at a Conservative Party Policy Conference in 1969 (!). Coincidentally or not, that was the same year that Canada’s Liberal prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, and Edward Schreyer, the newly elected NDP premier of Manitoba, conducted an “income experiment” in the small city of Dauphin, Manitoba. Zi-Ann Lum told the story in a 2014 Huffington Post article under the headline: “Canadian City Eliminated Poverty and Nearly Everybody Forgot About It.

In 1973, Manitoba signed a cost-sharing agreement whereby the federal government paid 75% of the $17 million cost of the program while the province picked up 25%. One third of the residents of Dauphin qualified for checks of the same base amount, based on 60% of what Statistics Canada considered to be the low-income cut-off. This varied depending on family size and location. At the time, a low income for a single person was $3,386 per year ($16,094.00 in 2014 dollars).

“Mincome” as the program came to be known, was the first of its kind in North America, standing out from similar American programs because it included those with disabilities and seniors. It was designed to provide money to the working poor thereby bringing their incomes up to a living wage, the hope being that it wouldn’t kill their initiative to work. As Lum writes, “It didn’t.” One 87-year old woman, Frances Richardson — a mother of six children, three of whom lived at home at the time, along with her ailing mother — ran a small hairdressing salon from her home to supplement her husband’s salary from the local telephone company. She recalls how well Mincome
worked for them, providing predictability and stability, ensuring there was always food on the table and that the children remained in school. In the five years from 1974-1979, 1,000 families in the city received livable incomes where they had previously lived below the poverty line. When the provincial Conservatives came to power provincially in  1977 and federally in 1979, they scrapped the program; packing the project records into 1,800 boxes and that were placed in storage.

The boxes came to light when University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Evelyn Forget tracked down the records in 2005. As a student at the University of Toronto in the ’70s, she had become aware of the Mincome project through professors who “praised the experiment as really important,” something that would “revolutionize the delivery of social programs.” Unfortunately, the records, neither labelled nor indexed, were in no shape to provide statistical information. Instead, she did a radio spot asking anyone who had benefited from the project to contact her. One woman, a single mother raising two girls who, at the time of the project, was surviving on “Mother’s Allowance,” recalled how she had asked her case worker if she could get job training. She was advised to “stay at home and bring up her children.” She was overjoyed when she transferred to Mincome, signed up for job training and got a part-time job that turned into a career at the local library.

In 2011, Forget released a paper showing that Mincome recipients’ experienced fewer hospitalizations (for accidents, injuries and mental illness) while on the program.  Now a professor with the Department of Community Health Services at the University of Manitoba, Forget said “people are concerned with precarious employment, increased mechanization of jobs and dissatisfaction with how current welfare systems are administered.”  She feels that a guaranteed annual income “offers low-income families the same kind of privacy the rest of us take for granted when we fill out our income tax or interact with the systems in one way or another.”


Pilot Projects?

Back to Hugh Segal, the retired senator with a passion for instituting some form of guaranteed income.  In June, Segal was appointed to advise the Province of Ontario on “the design and implementation of a pilot study of a guaranteed income” that would come into effect in April of 2017. Under the program, participants’ total incomes will be topped off above the poverty line and the subsidy will supplement “any supports received from existing anti-poverty programs which will not be eliminated or replaced during the pilot.” The project will differ from the usual model, wherein all individuals receive a regular payment of the same amount regardless of other earnings or total income. Ontario will “investigate a program that supplements the earnings ‘only’ of individuals whose incomes are below a certain level (e.g. the poverty line) in this respect,” similar to the Mincome project discussed above.

Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal (Photo by Milan Ilnyckyj, own work, [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

There would be “no work requirements or other conditions that poor Canadians would need to meet to qualify” says Segal, and “all would be eligible whether working or not.” Segal told the CBC’s Dean Beeby in August 2016 that the Ontario government could “run two types of pilots” – one in a small community where the entire community would get a guaranteed income and another in a larger area involving a “a sample of individuals.” Participation would be voluntary. Beeby reports that Ontario will not receive direct financial support from the federal government, although “the majority Liberal party endorsed guaranteed annual income at its May convention.”The provincial Ontario government has earmarked $24 million for the pilot. Segal answers those who suggest that “if you pay people to do nothing, they will do nothing” by reminding them that 70% of people who live beneath the poverty line in Ontario have jobs. He also suggests that “the project would have to be in place for at least three years in order to measure impacts effectively.” Speaking to the Huffington Post’s Lum, Segal said “its an abomination that we, including party leaders in the past two elections, won’t discuss poverty when 10% of the population is living beneath the poverty level.” He does admit to being more optimistic now because of signs of interest in a guaranteed annual income from both Liberals and Greens.

Quebec, Alberta and P.E.I. have also raised the possibility of minimum income pilots with Quebec having appointed a cabinet minister to study the topic. Federal M.P. Robert Falcon Oulette is pushing for government research on the topic while the mayors of both Edmonton and Calgary are on board as well. Segal describes the current poverty-reduction efforts as “freezing people in poverty not liberating them from it.”

“Dealing with poverty is also a way of taking pressure off the health care system,” he says, something that proved true in the Mincome project in Manitoba.

The big question is whether or not Canadians have the will or even the desire to demand a guaranteed annual income for those struggling in poverty and forced to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families. While so many are already on board to change the existing system, a 2016 Angus Reid Institute poll found broad skepticism, with almost two-thirds of those polled indicating they would not be willing to pay taxes to support a program providing $30,000 in guaranteed annual income. So much for the huge amounts of money donated over the Christmas season for those who “have so much less” than most of us. Is that what we want for the poor? A nice big, fat Christmas box with gifts under the tree that makes us feel all cozy inside because we’ve done something good? Shouldn’t we want to put an end to poverty and yes, to food banks, by paying a bit more in tax dollars? We shall see.


Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



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