Food Bank Panel Discusses Need for Long-Term Solutions to Food Insecurity

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Author: Josie Di Felice

Posted: April 18, 2017

Categories: Food in the News / GoodFoodBites / News from Sustain Ontario

An important discussion surrounding Food Banks—and what they can and can’t do—was hosted by Ryerson University’s School of Nutrition and Centre For Studies in Food Security on April 6th.

Canada’s first food bank opened in 1981, and ever since, the number and size of food banks across the country has grown exponentially, indicating some serious unresolved problems.

What needs to be done to better address hunger and food insecurity? What have we learned? What is working? What isn’t? These were some of the questions explored at this month’s panel, chaired by Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc.

From a local food bank model to a glimpse at the U.S and Brazil, from research & policy to student hunger relief programs on Canadian campuses, the 5 guest panelists brought plenty of food for thought to the table.

Andy Fisher, a well-known food activist and author from the U.S., began the panel with some framing that would be revisited throughout the evening: food banks initially emerged as a temporary solution, with an intention to put themselves out of business—yet now they often focus on growth. But growth in numbers, when it comes to food banks, should not be seen as progress. Andy’s call to action for a long-term plan has a vision for 2030, which entails looking at this growth as failure.

But, along with a vision for the future, the panel looked to the past and present too.

As a Principal Investigator with PROOF, Valerie Tarasuk discussed their research team that first began collecting data in 1994 to better understand Canada’s rise in food bank use. Their research shows that food insecurity is a severe problem in Canada, which is grossly understated when just looking at food bank client numbers. Unsurprisingly, it takes a toll on many people’s health and our overall healthcare system. Valerie highlighted a need to transform relationships with the public and private sector, while stressing that food insecurity is not simply a food problem. Policy intervention that directly targets food insecurity, not just policy supporting food banks, Valerie said, is the only thing that will move the needle.

Cecilia Rocha, Director, Ryerson School of Nutrition, highlighted food banks in Brazil and their “Right to Food” approach. Brazil has seen notable success in moving many citizens out of poverty through an integrated “Zero Hunger Strategy,” which includes public food banks designed to function as public social service agencies. They have found strengths and drawbacks, and Cecilia’s report, A Right to Food Approach: Public Food Banks in Brazil, presents Brazil as a case for studying the role of food banks in food and nutrition security.

The Executive Director of North York Harvest Food Bank (NYHFB), Ryan Noble, provided the evening with a picture of innovative food banking in today’s Toronto. NYHFB initially surfaced like most food banks: to help neighbours in need, and it too was never intended to be a long-term solution. But in an effort to adapt to and address these issues through a broader lens, NYHFB runs on a community-based model of food banking that exceeds food distribution. NYHFB uses food as a catalyst to build community through a number of programs that empower their clients (check our their Oriole Food Space). Ryan outlined four asks of the government: increase affordable housing, update social assistance, support a basic income experiment, and create secure employment.

Merryn Maynard, Program Coordinator with Meal Exchange, then brought the discussion to the campus. After all, food insecurity is a problem among student populations as well, and Meal Exchange’s growing campus food bank programs are indicative of that. Through a study Meal Exchange completed last year, they found nearly 2 in 5 students surveyed experienced some level of food insecurity in 2015-16, but only a fraction of those students (16.8%) accessed a food bank. Merryn stressed how food banks are necessary right now, but not sufficient, and further pushed the need to address these issues through a systems view.

A spirited Q&A session also highlighted the need for a shift in thinking and participation of civil society.

Though complex issues often come with conflicting opinions, the evening discussion saw common ground in the stance that longer-term solutions that consider a system-wide approach to food security are needed.

Food banks certainly achieve significant, impactful work, but what can be done so their growth is no longer necessary?

If you’d like to learn more, connect with some of the many incredible groups working on these important issues: PROOF, North York Harvest Food Bank, Meal Exchange, The Stop Community Food Centre, Toronto Food Policy Council