Twenty-three people shiver be side the brick walls of a west-end food bank on a cold, wet and windy day, waiting for the door to open. Regular clients of this food bank know that arriving early is a must if they want to be sure to get some food. I arrive just as the doors open, as a group of another 20 or so rush to get a spot in line. Elderly staff, smiling and welcoming all to the basement of the church, hand out numbered cards to the unsmiling people who make a special effort not to make eye contact before eagerly heading for the hot coffee and muffin pieces on the welcome table.
Waiting solemnly with the others, I watch the children arriving with their harried mothers. It's a busy day in the middle of the month, when social assistance and disability cheques are long gone, spent on luxuries like rent and hydro. So many people here - all looking stressed and worried. I ask the smiling senior citizen staffer how the food stocks are today."We're going to run out again, I'm afraid."
Looking at the children, I realize I can't accept food that I know will be taken away from them. I give my number to a particularly frantic young mother and head back home, resigned to another week or so of rationing canned vegetables for all my meals.
I didn't realize it until much later, but this was the reason I applied to be a volunteer board member at the Daily Bread Food Bank, one of Toronto's major distributors of food to hungry people. As a low-income, below-the- poverty-line disabled person who had become politically active on poverty issues, I was found to be a good candidate for one of the 16 spots on the governing board.
After a year of throwing myself heart and soul into the complex machinery of Daily Bread, working in almost every area of the operation, I'm much more aware of what goes on behind the scenes. Yet I'm still seeing people turned away due to low food stocks.
I experienced a weird reality, where one moment I was at board meetings voting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenditures and the next trying to discover why cans of soup were not sent to my local food bank.
Despite an annual budget of more than $6 million, a staff of about 30, thousands of volunteer hours, over 200 member agencies and a new gigantic permanent warehouse home in Etobicoke, getting the goods to clients is a messy hit-and-miss challenge. A year into my two-year commitment, the situation seems unchanged.
Daily Bread's mission statement proclaims: "Our immediate goal is to feed hungry people. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for food banks." On the surface, this seems sensible and responsible - until you realize that the food bank is "celebrating" its 20th anniversary this year. What was initially meant to be a temporary, stopgap measure has become an entrenched staple of society. Why?
Governments of all political stripes have realized that they can download essential social safety net supports and count on private corporations to donate food for tax breaks. Governments have also become less accountable for the root causes that drive people to use food banks: high rents, pitifully low social assistance rates, the low minimum wage, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment. Governments are always more comfortable being at arm's length from the truly difficult problems.
I have witnessed that Daily Bread's major efforts are heavily skewed toward the second of their conflicting missions - the one about eliminating the need for food banks. In their terms, this is called advocacy - rubbing shoulders with the powers that be, compiling compelling statistics from regular surveys, mounting stylish advertising campaigns and generally being in the public eye. It's a glamorous activity, and the media are friendly to the honourable goals of Daily Bread.
In comparison, the daily grind of getting cans of tuna trucked to various locations in the city seems routine. However, getting an order delivered reliably and accurately is key to feeding hungry people. When the limited resources of staff are turned to trying to influence long-term societal issues, those resources are not available for the daily grind.
At meeting after meeting of Daily Bread's board of directors, I've felt like a voice in the wilderness, harping on the plight of "Joe and Jill Foodbasket," who not only often get shortchanged on an acceptable quantity of food but also must make do with a quality of nutrition that is spotty at best. I'm convinced that we're not winning any war on hunger as a society, but rather perpetuating an erratic and dangerously unhealthy lifestyle for needy people.
Why is this happening?
Daily Bread gives out about a three-day supply of food once or twice a month to most clients. It also regularly compares its donated food supply to Canada's food guide and educates individuals and agencies about the need for essentials like protein, grains, fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet requires about 2,700 nutritious calories per day for men and 2,000 for women. The problem is that there's often not enough of the good stuff to go around.
The perishables like produce, bread and milk wait too long at the warehouse between once-or-twice-a-week delivery to local agencies that have too few volunteers to hand them out to food bank clients. "We're just a few busy people trying to hand out food," says one agency manager. Agencies must rely on one or two people to be the food supply divider - a kind of "food czar" who decides who gets what (an unenviable job when you know giving to one means denying another).
Most charitable people think of giving only a few times a year, during the Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives, and the food supply dwindles at other times. (Hunger is a 365-days-a-year problem, and summers are usually the worst.) But food bank demand has risen from 115,000 users a month in 1995 to 160,000 a month in 2003 (a 40 per cent increase). And for all the statistics I could cite, the truth is that statistics don't feed the hungry - people do.
There are no villains to blame here. Everyone is struggling to help as best they can. Perhaps Daily Bread is simply an institution doomed by its own success. The scales of hunger and need have tilted too much, and now the help is spread too thin.
I'm no longer surprised, because I understand better why there's not enough food getting to the needy. However, I'm still troubled that I keep hearing, "We're going to run out again, I'm afraid."