Campaigns for food bank donations are a staple of the holiday season, but some Canadian food insecurity researchers say the appeals can be tough to swallow.

Josh Smee, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador-based non-profit Food First N.L., says he tends to feel conflicted during the holidays when calls ramp up to donate to local food banks, often accompanied by messaging about ending hunger.

Hunger is an income issue, he said, adding people don't have enough food because they don't have money to buy it.

Smee said donating to food banks won't put more money in the pockets of people who rely on them for meals, but systemic change — such as increasing minimum wages and income support levels — will.

"The reality of it is that we've built a system where private charity is filling in for where the social safety net should be," Smee said in a recent interview. "Right now it is absolutely imperative that people donate when they can. But I think that when folks make those donations, they should also be reaching out to decision makers to let them know that it's not acceptable that these circumstances exist."

Research from Proof, a national food insecurity working group based at the University of Toronto, shows nearly 16 per cent of households across Canadian provinces adjusted their diets or simply went without in 2021 because there wasn't enough food on hand.

In the same sample, researchers found about 63 per cent of households receiving social assistance or income support last year were food insecure. The same was true of nearly 14 per cent of surveyed households where income came from wages or salaries, the group's research said.

Meanwhile, annual social assistance rates for a single person in 2021, including tax breaks, ranged from $7,499 in New Brunswick to $13,838 in Prince Edward Island, according to a report released last week by Toronto-based anti-poverty think tank Maytree.

Smee said he wants to see provincial governments index social assistance rates to inflation and raise minimum wages. He's also part of an effort to encourage the Newfoundland and Labrador government to implement a basic income program.

Why anti-poverty researchers bristle at holiday appeals for food bank donations. #FoodBank #AntiPoverty #HolidaySeason

"Poverty is just so expensive," Smee said. "Effectively, what we're all doing as individual taxpayers ... is we're subsidizing keeping income support rates low and keeping wages low. Because those folks are then reaching out for either state supports or charity."

Lynn McIntyre, emeritus professor of community health at the University of Calgary's medical school, said she feels despair every year as people are urged to donate to local food banks.

"I think I've gone past despair, but I still haven't reached resignation," said McIntyre, who is part of the Proof research group. "I'm very, very disappointed that we continue to think that this problem that is related to inadequate income can be solved by food."

Food banks first opened in Canada in the early 1980s and were supposed to be a temporary support amid a growing recession, McIntyre said. She said continued government investment into food banks signals that those in power aren't prepared to tackle the root causes of hunger, which include inadequate incomes.

She said she was pleased to hear Smee's organization held a conference Saturday in St. John's, N.L., called "Rethinking Food Charity." The event was aimed at helping non-profits like food banks be more involved in advocating for systemic change.

"I do think that that's really what needs to be said. Don't just drop a can and then say, 'But I I really believe in basic income' or 'I believe in poverty reduction initiatives.' I think we have to absolutely stop these responses and beef up our current system."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2022.

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I'm so glad to see this article. I do not donate money to food banks and I do write politicians to do something about poverty. I lived in Toronto in 1984 when the first food bank opened; it was shocking. It was huge news across the country and we were all assured by governments that this was temporary. Food banks have now become an institution and a clear indicator, along with homelessness, that we are a failed society. I take particular note of provincial NDP governments that do nothing about poverty when they are in power and by nothing I mean no meaningful increase in the minimum hourly wage rate and social benefits, and no increase in the construction of not for profit social housing. In fact, in BC this fall the NDP government, with a $5.1 billion surplus, gave food banks extra funding instead of increasing benefits to people with disabilities, low income families and low income seniors so they can live with dignity and go to the store to buy their food. It's just shameful.

Totally agree with you and normally what I extrapolate from things like this is to get political, as in ABC, anything but conservatives, but it's really disappointing to hear the B.C. NDP responded that way too. Like the no-brainer issue of logging old growth forests, somehow even they don't seem able to stop it. It's as infuriating and baffling as the continuing, constant kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry who probably wrote the book on the tactics required to "incorporate" structural, systemic changes that hamstring everyone who wins power, regardless of which party they represent.
However, as big oil edges inevitably toward pariah territory with worsening climate disaster, all the money in the world won't help them. Except it's already too late, so I fervently hope there are some results from all the lawsuits against them for true crimes against humanity.

Again the clarifying context of history or economics is sorely needed here, something I dearly wish our media would adopt since it seems wholly absent. (Our education system appears to be failing noticeably in its supporting role for our democracy.)
The inherent entertainment value of sentimentality is the order of the day instead, imitating social media algorithms despite their culpability in the democracy- destroying phenomenon of post-truth. So with food banks and the homeless everyone can pat themselves on the back for doing a good deed, cheerfully ignoring all perspective on why this is happening. Another even more patronizing and glaring example here in Lethbridge is a regular fund-raising/awareness raising (pfffftttt) event where young people spend a night outside in order to "experience homelessness." That's the phrase used now, these people are somehow "experiencing homelessness."
Those of us who are older recognize that the younger generations have been absolutely inundated with advertising in all forms all their lives which should make critical thinking front and centre in schools, all on its own shouldn't it?
I wonder what they do with that in the Catholic system, which should truly be on borrowed time anyway, on principle, since we have never needed #truth more.

Yes food banks were supposed to be a temporary fix. That was over 40 years ago. Food banks are a dumping ground for corporate food waste. Just look at the Food Banks Canada Board of Directors ... Walmart, Kellogg and industry insiders and consultants. Far more lucrative for corporate Canada to write off their massive profits via donations to food banks than to pay people a living wage or a guaranteed annual income so they don't have to endure the humiliation of standing in food bank line-ups.