When Government Relies on Charity

I promised to deal with the volunteer awards that were presented during last week’s CBRM council meeting and, on the one hand, I can do that rather easily by telling you that the following awards were presented to the following people/groups:

Gary MacDonald Memorial Award: Sukhmani Sahib Society, Sydney

Anne Holland Memorial Award: Claire Bishop, North Sydney

Youth Volunteer Award: Christopher Kaiser

I can also add value by pointing out the interesting fact that District 3 Councilor Cyril MacDonald has won both the Anne Holland Award and the Youth Volunteer Award so is well on his way to a Triple Crown of municipal appreciation.

On the other hand, there are some interesting issues raised by these awards and as you can watch the video of the presentations or read the account in the local almost-daily, I think I’ll focus on those issues.

This is not meant as criticism of the winners, who are clearly providing needed services in our community; rather, it’s intended as criticism of government and official institutions which have become far too reliant on volunteers and charities to fill the gaps in their own services.


Good works

Take the Gary MacDonald Memorial Award. The winners, I would argue, don’t actually qualify for this award as it was described by recreation program coordinator Joe Costello, who explained it went to a volunteer group in recognition of “an outstanding project that improves recreation and leisure opportunities locally or regionally.” Past winners include the Cantley Village Recreation Association, the Tuesday Night Squirts Hockey Program and Basketball Cape Breton.

The Sukhmani Sahib Society’s main “project” was an impromptu soup kitchen providing hot meals to people—10,000 people over 10 days, according to the citation—left without power by post-tropical storm Fiona. District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald, in presenting the award, noted entirely without irony that Premier Tim Houston was among the “honorable ministers and MLAs” who were “impressed” by the students’ volunteer work.

A group of people

Screen capture of volunteer awards winners from video of 11 April 2023 CBRM council meeting.

I am going to give the municipality the benefit of the doubt and assume it does not actually consider eating at a soup kitchen a “recreation and leisure” opportunity. I will venture a guess that it felt an urge to honor this group for its admirable post-Fiona work, found itself with very few options for doing so and so stretched the definition of “recreation and leisure” to accommodate the Sukhmani Sahib Society’s good works, which also include helping “international students by providing them with food, shelter and motivational support,” running a winter clothing donation camp for “people in need” and helping newcomers, especially international students, “verify housing listings to make sure they were not victims of scams.”

Claire Bishop won the Anne Holland Award in part for her work with the North Sydney Food Bank Society and Christopher Kaiser, the winner of the Youth Volunteer Award, has worked with Undercurrent Youth Centres/Lighthouse Church which focuses on young people affected by our high rates of child poverty.

I can understand why the CBRM would like us to focus on the volunteers doing the excellent work of caring for their fellow humans rather than the gaping holes where governments and institutions like Cape Breton University should be, but those gaping holes are hard to ignore.

After that April 11 awards ceremony but before I sat down to write this, I read that volunteers with the Mennonite Disaster Service were returning to help Cape Bretoners who, almost seven months after Fiona, are still living in damaged houses.

The CBC interviewed one such Cape Bretoner, Jessica Reid-Lynk, who “applied for disaster assistance from the Nova Scotia government in late October” but “was denied because the home is still in her late father’s name, and the program is only offered to homeowners.” In this province, apparently, that constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to ensuring a family has a roof over its head.

Reid-Lynk, unsurprisingly, views the Mennonites as “angels”:

They came when I literally lost all of my hope and they brought it back. They’ve shown me what humanity is within our country again, whereas I haven’t seen humanity with our government.

And that, basically, is how my nice little story about municipal volunteer awards morphed into a critique of our social safety net.


Food Bank Nation

Food banks and “similar institutions” are an “international phenomenon,” writes Holger Schoneville of Dortmund University in Germany in this 2018 article, but Canada has the dubious distinction of being a relatively early adopter—our first food bank was established in Edmonton in January 1981— although we run a distant second to the United States which saw its first food bank in 1966.

The cover of a book called Food Banks and the Welfare CrisisOn the other hand, Canada produced one of the first books on the subject: Food Banks and the Welfare Crisis by Graham Riches. Written in 1986, it sounded the alarm about food banks in this country just five years after the first had appeared and while I was able to read only an excerpt online, I got an immediate sense of Riches’ concerns:

The view presented here is that the rise of the food banks provides concrete evidence of the collapse of social assistance and unemployment insurance. In other words, the safety net has broken down at the very point in a depressed economy where it should be providing its strongest support to the most vulnerable.

Riches explains his decision to focus on food banks this way:

Food banks pose critical questions about waste in advanced capitalist society; about how Canadians think about poverty and its creation; about child hunger in the midst of superficial affluence; about women in poverty; about public health and inadequate nutrition; about public and private rights and responsibilities; about the rise of voluntarism, the role of the church, and the significance of altruism; and about a public safety net in which the holes are so wide that minimal protection is denied hundreds of thousands of Canadians. They raise important issues about the constitutional division of powers and about whose responsibility it is to ensure that Canadian citizens receive adequate incomes from wages or income support. They also show how Canada and the provinces ignore international treaties which oblige both levels of government to guarantee the rights of all Canadians to adequate food, clothing and shelter.

Back in 1986, Riches hoped his study of the rise of food banks would “provoke new thinking about what was to be done.”

At that time, most of the food banks in Canada were in British Columbia and the Western provinces. Here in the Atlantic Provinces, PEI and Newfoundland had yet to establish any, New Brunswick had six and Nova Scotia had four (including Loaves and Fishes in Sydney, which opened in 1981, making it one of the first in Canada). But you can see the future lurking in this table—New Brunswick’s total was triple that of the previous year and Nova Scotia’s double:

Canada, Food Banks by Province, 1985


After conferences in 1985 and 1986, the Canadian Association of Food Banks (now Food Banks Canada) was established, a development Riches calls the “corporatization” of food banks and one we witnessed soon after in Nova Scotia as The Metro Food Bank Society, opened in Halifax in 1984, became the umbrella organization for food banks across the province in 2002 and rebranded as Feed Nova Scotia in 2005. The same effect can be seen at the international level, where the Chicago-based Global Foodbanking Network brings together national food bank organizations, like Food Banks Canada. Riches argues that the creation of these corporate entities—and the “relationships” they “foster” with “retail partners” like Loblaws and Walmart—has had the unfortunate effect of solidifying the presence and role of food banks in our society.

Although real responsibility for the continued existence of food banks in Canada lies squarely with our government.

Elaine Power, a professor of food and gender studies at Queen’s University, told the Toronto Star in 2020 that Edmonton’s first food bank was established “as a temporary emergency measure” during a recession that was “driving a surge of poverty”:

But when the economy picked up again, the social services that had helped alleviate poverty in Canada created after the Depression and the Second World War were never restored or adequately replaced. Instead, food banks and charities were left to fill in the cracks in Canadian society by keeping people fed…

A photo of a woman with glasses

Elaine Power (Source: ResearchGate)

Holger Schoneville likens food banks “and similar institutions” to a “small shed” erected behind the “main house” of the welfare state, arguing that “what might have started as a little disheveled shed, that wasn’t meant to stay there for long” has “acquired central functions” and “become part of the architectural structure of the main complex itself.”

What that looks like in Canada is the federal government, in October 2020, declaring that “[e]veryone deserves to be able to put nutritious food on their table” before announcing an investment of $100 million in “food banks and local food organizations.” By the end of 2020, according to the Star, the feds had put “$250 million in grants to help food charities purchase and distribute food, redirect food that would have otherwise been wasted to food charities and hire temporary help to replace volunteers.”

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto, told the paper:

The federal government is making it public policy to give money to support food charity as a response to this very, very serious problem. And that’s ridiculous.

Food Banks Canada’s 2022 “Hunger Count” includes reporting from 2,381 food banks—102 from Nova Scotia.

So much for “new thinking about what was to be done.”


“Affront to human dignity”

Graham Riches

Graham Riches

Today, Graham Riches is an emeritus professor in the UBC School of Social Work whose concern about food insecurity has not waned, nor has his dedication to reminding Canadian governments what the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, had to say about us in 2012, when he drew attention to what were then the 900,000 Canadians per month dependent on charity-based food aid, noting this “reliance on food banks was symptomatic of a broken social protection system” which served as “a moral safety valve for the State.”

In a 2020 piece for The Conversation, Riches called on governments to eliminate food banks arguing that:

…research has long shown that feeding surplus food to those left behind in wealthy, food-secure Canada is ineffective, inequitable and an affront to human dignity.

To back his contention that food banks don’t actually work, Riches cites the work of Tarasuk, who is also the principal investigator for PROOF, an interdisciplinary research team investigating effective policy approaches to reduce food insecurity in Canada. Tarasuk has crunched the numbers and found that even when food banks are operating at full capacity, they are serving only a fraction of Canada’s food insecure. As she told the Toronto Star in December 2020, at the height of COVID:

Even before the pandemic, when we look at the data, food charities would, at most, have seen one-sixth of the people who were struggling — and we have no evidence to suggest that the help people get from those (organizations) is sufficient to meet their needs.

Think about that: our “solution” to food insecurity fails to serve five out of every six people experiencing food insecurity.

Although Riches also offers a simpler proof, pointing out that food banks are ineffective because they are always running out of food.


The “Hunger” story

Both Tarasuk and Riches are clear about the roots of food insecurity. As Riches wrote in 2020, it is not a “food distribution issue”:

Interwoven with poverty, housing and labour market conditions, food insecurity is an income problem…

A photo of a woman with grey hair and glasses

Valerie Tarasuk (Source: Proof)

But that’s not the story we’re told by the media, which comes in for some serious criticism from all the food insecurity researchers I’ve come across in my reading this week. The Toronto Star, after noting that 2018 Stats Canada data shows wages are “the main source of income for about 65% of food-insecure households” and that “more than 60% of people on welfare can’t afford enough food and other basic living costs,” says:

But these numbers are rarely part of the stories Canadians — and Canadian media — tell about hunger.

“If you think about the messaging around food (charities), it’s doing a couple of things,” Tarasuk said. “It’s grossly misrepresenting the scale of the problem, but also badly misrepresenting the problem itself. If it’s framed as hunger — people are hungry, they need food, so give them food — it becomes a very simple thing (to solve).”

That story misses the fact that if someone can’t afford food, they’re likely also struggling to meet other basic expenses, like rent or mortgages, utility bills or prescription medications, she said.

Elaine Power goes further, saying the media framing of the problem as “hunger” limits “the range of acceptable—and politically feasible—solutions”:

Among the solutions that aren’t considered politically feasible is the implementation of adequate social supports. Those could include a universal basic income, she said — and that would mean increasing taxes, particularly for corporations and the wealthiest Canadians, to fund the system.

And Riches takes aim directly at the CBC for its annual December campaign in support of food banks (“Light Up A Life” as it’s known in Cape Breton). In this 2014 talk in the UK, he says he’s asked his local station if they’ve ever considered a “Right to Food” campaign and has been told that would be considered “too political.” And yet, somehow, advocating for the status quo with its reliance on “inequitable” and “ineffective” food banks is considered politically neutral.


Food waste

In 2019, on the eve of Brexit, which experts were predicting would increase food poverty in the UK, the Food Bank Leadership Institute held its annual conference in London. As Kayleigh Garthwaite, writing in the Guardian, explained:

A cursory review of the meeting agenda reveals a celebratory approach to food charity, in which the hungry are fed corporate surplus rations, such as wilted lettuce, dented tins of beans and day-old pastries that could not otherwise be sold.

The real beneficiaries of food charity, she argues, are the corporations providing it:

It’s a win-win for Big Food when it donates its leftover food to society’s left-behind people. In fact last year the environment secretary, Michael Gove, announced a £15m fund to support the expansion of charitable surplus-food redistribution, the first round of which was earmarked to enable redistribution organisations to purchase surplus food. Gove appointed Ben Elliot, the co-founder of luxury lifestyle group Quintessentially, as the first “food surplus and waste champion” to reduce “unnecessary” food surplus in the UK. Essentially, this means the state is subsidising corporations to waste food and then redistribute it in a fashion that boosts their reputation as good corporate citizens [emphasis mine].

Food charity, she argues, disguises the causes of “industrial-scale” food waste, namely “excessive production and profit-motivated overstocking.” And as Martin Caraher and Sinéad Furey discovered, in research undertaken for the UK’s Food Research Collaboration, the use of surplus food to feed food insecure people:

…undermines calls for direct actions to both reduce the production of surplus food and to address upstream drivers of food insecurity and ensure the right to food.

Basically, food insecurity and food waste are two separate problems, and while it’s tempting to think one could be used to solve the other, the great 30-year food bank experiment has proved otherwise.

Caraher and Furey spend some time considering the problems of relying on donated food for a nutritionally adequate diet, making the point that packaged and processed foods are much easier for food banks to handle than fresh fruits and vegetables, but their main argument is more pointed:

Relying on donations from individuals or companies and their distribution through charity does not meet the needs or rights of citizens.


Right to food

This is a point I found Graham Riches making repeatedly: Canada first recognized the right to food as a fundamental human right in 1948 and since then has signed several national and international agreements promoting the right to food:


A list of food security agreements signed by Canada.

Source: “Bringing home the right to food in Canada: challenges and possibilities for achieving food security,Karen Rideout, Graham Riches, Aleck Ostry, Don Buckingham  and Rod MacRae, 2007.


Food banks do not ensure the human right to food. Only adequate public policy can do that. As Elaine Power told the Star, while this charity-based approach is necessary to meet Canadians’ immediate needs for food, it should be recognized (30 years after the fact) as the emergency measure it is:

“(Food charities) serve too many purposes. They allow food companies to get rid of surpluses or things that couldn’t sell and be good corporate citizens. They allow workplaces to use volunteering as a kind of team-building. Even my kids, starting in junior kindergarten, they learn that this is how you be a good person — you bring food to the food bank,” she said.

Food charities shouldn’t be normal or institutionalized — advocating for adequate wages and income supports and demanding that large food producers, processors and grocers stop wasting 8.8 million tonnes of food annually should, she said.

Tarasuk agreed, saying it is not the public’s responsibility to alleviate hunger. It’s the government’s — and donating millions to charities isn’t enough, she added.

So, Councilor Eldon MacDonald, Premier Tim Houston and all you other “honorable ministers and MLAs,” by all means express your admiration for the volunteer work of people like the members of the Sukhmani Sahib Society, but recognize what it says about the shortcomings of your own governments.

That kind of self-reflection would be worth an award, in my books.