Metro Morning

Food banks are not solving food insecurity problem, expert says

The chair of the Food Insecurity Workgroup says food banks are not solving the problem of food insecurity and that long-term, income-based solutions are needed.

Food banks are 'short-term Band-Aid' on 'huge gaping wound,' says Mary Ellen Prange

"Food banks are obviously providing a service and people rely on them but the problem is much larger and other solutions are needed," said Mary Ellen Prange. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

The aching problem of food insecurity is much larger than food bank statistics suggest and food banks are not solving the problem, says Mary Ellen Prange, chair of the Food Insecurity Workgroup.

"Only about one in four households that experience food insecurity actually uses a food bank," Prange told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday.

Which is why Prange said food banks are "a short-term Band-Aid on this huge gaping wound."

Prange said food banks have created a secondary food system for impoverished people when what is needed are long-term solutions. 

"Families or individuals who may have bare cupboards and fridges — they can go to the food bank and maybe get a few days of food, but the situation of food insecurity is not erased by that. They're still going to be struggling to put food on the table day to day," she said. 

Mary Ellen Prange is calling for more long-term solutions to address food insecurity. (Metro Morning)

Prange is also with the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Heath, which released its position on food security earlier this month. The group said that "food charity is an ineffective and counterproductive response to food security because it does not address the root cause of poverty." 

Prange stressed that donating to food banks is fine. But along with that she is calling on people to pressure politicians to take action by focusing on income-based solutions.

"So here in Toronto a living wage, what was calculated in 2015 around $19 an hour, even with our minimum wage going up to $15 an hour in 2019, we're still going to be falling short of what it costs for just basic living," she said.

Food banks fight back

Richard Matern, the director of research and communications with the Daily Bread Food Bank, said his sector already recognizes it's the not the ideal solution.

"We have been pushing very hard on a few fronts for income-security reform, knowing that the foundation and the driving force around hunger is lack of income," he said. 

Earlier this week, the Ontario Association of Food Banks released its Hungry Report that showed almost 500,000 people used these services between April 2016 and March 2017.

According to Carolyn Stewart, the executive Director of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, food bank use in March of 2017 was up by three per cent compared to March of 2016, when 335,944 people were served by a food bank. 

"When you have people who are about to pass out because they need food — telling them to wait for policy [to] change or to push for bigger solutions isn't helpful," said Matern.

In Toronto, food bank use is going up to levels not seen "since the recession," according to the Daily Bread Food Bank's Richard Matern. (CBC)

​The Daily Bread Food Bank, he said, was among the agencies that pushed for an affordable housing benefit and getting it took ten years.

Last week, the federal government announced that a Canada Housing Benefit would be part of its national housing strategy. It will provide an average rent subsidy of $2,500 annually between April 2020 and 2028.

Prange is waiting to see how the housing strategy will roll out, but right now she sees promise in Ontario's Basic Income pilot project launched in Hamilton, Brantford, Brant County, Lindsay and Thunder Bay and surrounding areas.

The pilot will study how basic income affects things like housing, food security and health care. 

"It would be great if that can become a national policy because I really think we need an income floor," said Prange.   

The pilot provides participants with a basic income between $16,989 and $24,027 depending on whether they are single or a couple, with an additional $6,000 for anyone with a disability.

Participants can go to school or work while receiving the basic income, but it will be reduced by 50 cents for every dollar a participant earns working.

Prange is encouraged by the pilot, and she hopes to see the day that there is no longer a need for food banks.