Hands That Feed, Pt. 2: the Paradox of Essential Food Charity

Food charity is putting a band-aid on a deadly and insidious gangrene—which corporate power and government inaction allows to fester in our communities.

It’s now December. Almost ten months of living with a pandemic have passed, as well as twelve weeks of striking by Dominion staff whose stories we shared through Part One of this series on essential food work in June. The action led to a mere $1.35 per hour raise spread out over four years, while Loblaw has increased its profits by $864 million by the end of the third quarter compared to last year. The disparity between pandemic-induced profit and low wages is growing wider.

There is a direct connection between income and food insecurity. For months, stories in local media have paralleled those heard across the country: the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the need for emergency food assistance. Many people have been suddenly thrust into circumstances of income precarity.

Looking closer, we can also see ways in which our governments—plainly aware of the prevalence of food insecurity and its connection to income policies—deliberately turn a blind eye to their obligation to change things for the better. Refusal to enact research-based minimum wage policy and allowing social assistance program rates to stagnate below all three national poverty markers are windows into even deeper issues.

A core function of our federal and provincial governments is to provide a social safety net that allows its citizens to secure an adequate standard of living, including access to enough nutritious food. In his mandate letter to the Minister of the Department of Immigration, Skills and Labour, Premier Andrew Furey wrote: “The time for action is now. The economic status quo is no longer acceptable.”

Yet as the months—and years—drag on where working people, Income Support clients, seniors and children alike are forced to compromise on the quality and quantity of the food that is readily available at grocery stores and markets across the province, something has got to give.

We must analyze the factors which allow this lip service to continue, becoming pet projects for task forces to deliberate while decades of scholarship on poverty prevention go ignored. In April, while still the minister responsible for agriculture, Gerry Byrne publicly stated that it is national grocery chains that control food security in the province. As concerning as it was somber, admitting this points to an even worse reality. We have also allowed these grocers to influence food insecurity, which stems from a lack of economic resources to access food.

Criticized considerably for directly profiting from the pandemic while Canadians struggle to afford the food they sell, these same corporations are also the biggest donors to food banks across the nation. This is no coincidence. Rather, it is part of a concerted campaign to maximize profits through whatever means possible, actively undermining access to our food. Businesses worth billions have been allowed to hide in plain sight within policymaking spaces—including last year’s Independent Minimum Wage Review. They push the fantasy—embraced by our governments—that food charity is an acceptable response to wages and social assistance rates which perpetuate poverty.

“I’ve seen quite a few new clients through the food bank in the last few months,” a food bank staff member in St. John’s told the Independent. (They asked to remain anonymous due to potential privacy concerns, and to protect the identities of their community members.) “Some were laid off from work following the pandemic. Some were young people who had been anticipating summer jobs. Some were seniors who may have had other community supports but were now difficult or no longer possible to access.”

“I heard a lot of stories about those clients’ personal situations as a result of the pandemic. It was absolutely heartbreaking at times. I heard from a lot of people that they never expected to be in this situation, so there was this kind of general sense of shock.”

Unlike the billions of dollars the federal and provincial governments have collectively used for other pandemic-related relief funding, they have largely remained distanced from direct food assistance—despite the overwhelming and lasting demand. This is because there is nothing unprecedented about large numbers of people relying on the (often unpaid) labour that facilitates emergency food distribution.

Just as grocery store staff play fundamental roles in our food system, those who provide emergency charitable food responses are doing undeniably essential work. But the unexpected food emergency that many are facing as the result of the Covid-19 pandemic is the norm for too many others. This point is worth analysis in Newfoundland and Labrador. The impact that reliance on charity has on our communities is far more complex than a good news story.

Food banks in Canada are organizations which redistribute donated food on an ad hoc, voluntary basis. There are no standardized, publicly-administered programs which provide a source of food for those without enough. Instead, the influx of government funds for food in response to the Covid-19 economic crisis were passed onto community groups—some brand new to food distribution themselves—and with it, the responsibility to feed the public.

The province provided logistical support for the establishment of a Community Food Helpline, extending its arms-length role even further. The line initially connected government Healthline staffers directly to people without adequate economic resources to afford food, only to redirect them to external organizations and food banks.

It is standard practice to off-load this responsibility to provide for those whose income does not allow them to make dignified food decisions themselves onto the charitable sector. But depoliticizing food insecurity is the very thing that keeps people caught in cycles of poverty—a number which advocates warn is growing significantly.

Affording Food for the First Time

New faces in food banks is not the whole story behind food charity in the pandemic either. An important factor making a difference in who has been accessing emergency food is the implementation, and subsequent loss, of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

“The initial concern, for everyone I think, was that food bank usage would go through the roof during the pandemic with the amount of people who were laid off or unable to work. Initially our numbers stayed relatively steady but then they actually started to decline, especially when CERB rolled out,” explained the food bank worker who spoke to the Independent.

“Eventually, we started hearing from members of our community—many of whom had relied on food banks for years—and what we heard is that they were able to purchase groceries for the first time in a long time because they were receiving CERB payments.”

In Canada, those who are reliant on social assistance programs for their income are at the highest risk for marginal, moderate and severe food insecurity. In Newfoundland and Labrador, a staggering 65 percent of income support recipients lived in food-insecure households before the pandemic.

“Tons of our clients stopped by in June just to chat, and let us know they’re able to actually buy groceries, some for the first time in their lives,” the food bank staffer said.

It wasn’t until the emergency response payment started to run out—and income support clients began to have their benefits clawed back by the provincial government—that things changed for the worse. Advocates worried that these clawbacks, in concert with the ending of CERB itself on October 3, would push people even deeper into poverty than before the onset of Covid-19.

Doug Pawson is the Executive Director of End Homelessness St. John’s (EHSJ), which serves as a Community Entity under the Government of Canada’s national homelessness strategy, Reaching Home. The group has been one of many advocates urging the provincial Department of Immigration, Skills and Labour (DISL) to stop penalizing income support clients who received CERB.

“When CERB was announced, it was unclear who would be eligible, and many folks receiving income supports applied and received it—whether eligible or not,” Pawson told the Independent. “People used these funds for a variety of purposes, including furniture, beds, groceries, childcare. Things that were difficult to afford on such low income support rates.”

Despite the federal government asking provinces and territories not to treat the benefit as income against their support program eligibility, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Division of Income Supports is committed to “claw back payments dollar-for-dollar where there are overlapping payments.” They even suspended the accounts and prescription drug coverage of some recipients.

“When we looked at the case load data, we saw a dramatic decrease in income support recipients and beneficiaries,” Pawson explained. “Between April and September there was a 7.08% reduction in case loads, representing 1,641 unique cases.” Based on the data provided by EHSJ, the number of individuals from these cases is 2,574—including children whose families make up a unique case.

In July, EHSJ addressed their concerns to then-Minister Christopher Mitchelmore.

“We were warning of the perfect storm in which CERB had an end date, and no changes to eligibility requirements for income support would put thousands of residents around the province in danger,” Pawson said.

With no changes by October, Pawson, along with Canadian Mental Health Association NL’s (CMHA-NL) Heidi Edgar, met with now-Minister Gerry Byrne—who had been shuffled into the role in August. The group was disappointed by the follow-up letter drafted by Byrne, which stated:

“During our discussions it was mutually agreed that it is inappropriate for individuals to be able to receive both Income Support and much higher monthly CERB payments at the same time, and that it is important that this Department assist and support citizens requiring Income Support following CERB in a timely manner to mitigate any negative financial consequences such as housing instability.”

“The Minister’s correspondence revealed distinct differences in our positions, and it did not reflect our conversation,” Pawson explained to the Independent. “EHSJ does not agree with the assertions and positions in the Minister’s letter—which indicated a lack of empathy and understanding of the unique needs of those in receipt of Income Supports.”

Indeed, the detached lack of urgency and misunderstanding demonstrated in the Minister’s letter is worrisome, especially given reports of steadily climbing demands on emergency food resources.

“Many folks who availed of the benefit received it for a number of periods, but we started to see a few being cut-off and suspended, losing all of their benefits,” explained Pawson. “We received a number of requests to cover medication because recipients’ health benefits were cut off. Income Supports suspended a number of eligible and ineligible CERB recipients, likely due to the absence of any clear policy approach. Minister Byrne hangs on the technicality that folks who were eligible for CERB and received it wouldn’t lose their benefits. But many non-eligible recipients were cut off and these folks represent the most vulnerable.”

“Critically, during this time projections emerged showing 9,000 residents here who received CERB would be left with no other income source under the revised CRB and EI programs.”

This analysis came from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), who warned that these 9,000 citizens would suddenly be receiving no income whatsoever.

The regulations governing Income Supports require that an applicant’s income for sixty days before their application must be less than or equal to 140% of the statute’s amount for maintaining a residence (between $534 and $863, depending on an individual’s situation)—plus the amount for shelter and child benefit the applicant is receiving.

With these rules, those receiving CERB the entire time it was available wouldn’t be eligible for months after the federal benefit ended. After this period they could apply again, but will have to wait until their application is processed to receive any income.

“Given the income testing requirements, we were warning of the dangers for income support recipients who had been suspended, or who were about to be,” Pawson explained. “Income Supports would expect someone eligible for, say, $1,000/month—who received $2,000/month with CERB—to stretch that $2,000 for two months before being eligible again. This is a technical matter the Minister hasn’t addressed.”

“This period poses significant challenges for many more residents as well and could leave many without income for months, just in time for the holidays and winter.”

Byrne’s letter continued:

“As we are both aware, a relatively small cohort of Income Support clients in receipt of CERB appear to have experienced challenges in using CERB income to make rental or utility payments as a result of previous reliance on the Income Support system to redirect a portion of monthly benefits to a landlord or utility company on their behalf. I feel we have agreed, it is critical that government and community work toward developing approaches to assist individuals in receipt of Income Support to become self-reliant and independent, and as a result, more resilient to changes in financial circumstances.”

“It’s critical to note that during our conversation with Minister Byrne (wherein he repeatedly referred to us as ‘Homeless NL’), the estimates of individuals who avail of direct rental and utility payments represented a couple of thousand Income Support recipients,” Pawson explained. “These residents are not inconsequential, as his response suggested.”

He noted that just as anyone can set up auto-payments on their bills, IS recipients use these direct payment arrangements as a mechanism to ensure that their bills are paid on time.

“To be clear: EHSJ maintains that the best way to ensure resilience for Income Support recipients in the face of changing financial circumstances is to exempt CERB from Income Support recipients and eligibility requirements,” Pawson affirmed. “For those who were ineligible to receive CERB, the Government of Canada has arranged mechanisms to recover those funds. By applying further penalties, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is unnecessarily placing our vulnerable neighbours at risk.”

According to data compiled by EHSJ, the CERB clawbacks will amount to an estimated savings of $2,712,112 for the province between April and September—a figure that likely reached up to $4 million when inclusive of September’s numbers, which have not been released. By comparison, the Liberals offered $30 million in renovation rebates for homeowners in June, which now may be topped up by an additional $5 million.

By early September, the food bank staff member who spoke to the Independent was seeing the difference first hand.

“Since CERB started running out our numbers are going up again, and we have seen an influx of new clients who have never used a food bank before,” they explained. “Our concern now, of course, is that when CERB payments end in a few weeks we’re going to see our numbers rise drastically. While we’re prepared for that scenario and confident we can meet that need, I think it speaks to a much larger issue within our communities which is that in ‘normal times’ an alarming rate of people cannot afford their basic means to life.”

Two months later, Pawson echoed these realities.

“We’re starting to hear more and more about the effects with CERB ending. It’s still a bit early, but there’s a real challenge emerging with food security and housing,” Pawson explained. “We continue to hear from agencies in the community that their clients are making trade-offs between rent, utilities and food.”

“I suspect we’re a month or two away from seeing widespread challenges to the health, housing and correction systems.”

“Absolutely no interest or political will”

This trade-off between non-negotiable expenses like rent and utilities for a compromise in the quality and amount of food an individual can access is exactly what researchers describe when they define food insecurity in high-income countries like Canada. As evidenced by the provincial government’s willingness to deny the resources proven to alleviate this compromise, it is also the departure point from which policy turns its back on food access.

“There is absolutely no interest or political will to support those on Income Supports,” Pawson concluded. “It’s really disheartening that the Minister maintains such an antiquated notion of how individuals living in poverty can gain financial independence and resilience.”

Government officials are able to do this because the province has absolved itself of the responsibility to meet the basic needs of its most vulnerable residents. Instead, it relies on the illusion that volunteer groups, community organizations, and non-profit meal providers can adequately ameliorate the suffering caused by the extremely low bar set by our so-called social safety net.

In fact, the Liberals have not attempted to hide their stance that it is the job of extra-governmental groups to ensure Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can access food. EHSJ’s statement on July 7 warning that enforcing penalties on Income Support recipients would have dire social and financial costs to public systems had the signatures of 13 additional community representatives and organizations.

Despite this, in his reply confirming the decision to enforce the penalties—and with it confirming the government’s knowledge that it was perpetuating food insecurity by doing so—then-Minister Mitchelmore cited the “$500,000 provided to Food First NL to support local food banks.”

With no movement on the issue from DSIL, EHSJ appealed to the Premier’s Office, who directed Pawson and Edgar to Doris Cowley, the Social Policy Special Advisor to the Premier. In an October 21 meeting with Cowley, the pair shared their concerns for Income Support recipients, as well as the thousands of residents who were transitioning from CERB, who would not be eligible for CRB or EI, and could not access IS.

Their efforts were futile. Cowley circled back to Byrne’s department, who were insistent that nothing would change.

“It is interesting that the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador was able to save money on the backs of the province’s most vulnerable and see it as acceptable to do so,” Pawson told the Independent, reiterating EHSJ’s statements to the Premier’s Office in a follow-up letter to Cowley.

“The consequences of the government’s response has forced many of our most vulnerable neighbours into a position of income instability, which results in struggles with their rent, utilities, food security and health benefits.”

Pawson noted that, importantly, there has been no clear and formal communication channel to ensure Income Support recipients could make the best decisions for them and their family at the height of uncertainty. Instead, through a Vulnerable Populations Task Force, an array of ad hoc responses were established which Pawson says does not offset the income instability caused by the lack of a consistent and system-wide response.

“It was also extremely difficult for individuals and community organizations to reach Income Support staff, due to high demand and a lack of centralized phone system while staff were working from home. It was necessary to leave a message and receive a call back within 48 hours. Some individuals did not have a phone number to leave,” Pawson lamented. “Those who were able to leave a message often received a call back long after 48 hours, or not at all.”

When the Independent reached out to DSIL and the Premier’s Office for comment, it was confirmed that Premier Furey had received EHSJ’s correspondence. Meanwhile, DSIL stated that “this engagement with stakeholders and communities is helping to inform the development of a renewed strategy to reduce poverty in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Despite the promise of future task-force meetings, the situation remains urgent. The Independent caught up with the food bank staff member for an update in late November.

“Our numbers have been steadily increasing over the last few months,” they said. “We have returned to—if not surpassed—pre-pandemic levels, and we’re continuing to see that influx of first-time clients.”

“I have been hearing a common thread of loss of work, inability to find work, and decreased income support. Plus, an overall heightening sense of fear and anxiety with winter on the way.”

Inadequate Wages, Inadequate Access to Food

The reliance on food charity to solve what is definitively an issue of income is prominent in our province. Importantly, it’s not only those who rely on our social safety net who are food insecure. Many working people receive such low wages that they still meet the thresholds for at least some social assistance. Data released before the pandemic—and corresponding massive job losses across the country—showed that in Newfoundland and Labrador, 53.8 percent of food insecurity is experienced by working people.

This is because our minimum wage falls far short of a wage which allows individuals and families to afford the basics needed to thrive here—including healthy food. As discussed in part one of this series, even essential workers who ensure the rest of us are well-fed are paid the minimum the law allows while contending with precarious part-time hours enabling the companies they work for to pay little to no benefits.

Loblaw is the largest and most profitable grocer in Canada, thus garnering the most attention on these issues. But this is a problem across the grocery business in our province, agitated by one of the lowest minimum wages in the country.

Even the stores owned or franchised by people who live in our communities pay the majority of their staff the bare minimum. Over the past year, it’s become apparent that many grocery staff themselves are forced to use food banks in order to feed their families.

Expansions to create superstores with full grocery departments means Walmart Canada now holds a large share of the country’s grocery market. In April, CEO Doug McMillon’s statement alluded to how important food is to Walmart Inc.’s strategy:

“We continue to be excited about our strength internationally. We offer grocery pickup, delivery, or both in nearly a dozen countries. We’re playing offense.

That ‘offensive play’ means they only offer low wages, actively prevent union organizing in their stores, and destroy local businesses wherever they’re established.

The Independent spoke with a staff member at Walmart in Corner Brook, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job.

“The majority is minimum wage and turnover is high. The longer you’re employed there, your wage is incrementally increased by a few cents a year. Full-time positions are rare. Almost every cashier is part-time (working just under 30 hours a week to less). This leads a lot of employees to want to fill available shifts, because they need the money. It’s your textbook precarious situation,” the worker explained.

“A lot of workers are young—especially now, with older, at-risk employees staying home—many are university and high-school students, and most of those in university are international students.”

By paying low wages, and controlling a global supply chain with access to cheaply produced goods anywhere in the world, Walmart is able to sell food at low prices. This often makes them a vital resource for low-income earners to afford the basics. The cycle which persists is not easily dismantled—but could be addressed in part by raising the minimum wage.

“Pre-covid, my wage was just sufficient to meet my most basic needs and left little room for other spending,” the worker continued. “A lot of times it’s been far less than sufficient. I’ve been lucky enough to have low rent and fewer expenses than most, but my experience is still the typical one: all you can afford are the necessities.”

Walmart Inc. boasted over $524 billion in revenue in 2019, $11.4 billion of which was paid to its shareholders. They maintained $25 billion in operating cash flow—the amount after wages and taxes were paid.

“It’s a real challenge, and it depresses you,” the worker confessed. “The freeze on student loan payments has helped me save over the past months, and GST cheques remain as vital to my financial wellbeing as they ever have. The government at least pretends it has some kind of duty to keeping its citizens alive. Corporations have no such duty to their employees and refuse to accept one.”

“It’s not a livable wage at the best of times. I can’t imagine what it’s like for my coworkers trying to support a family.”

McMillon’s statement pointed to another important aspect of Walmart’s business—its position as an indispensable player in the realm of corporate charity.

“We also understand the important role we play in the fabric of communities. To help meet the critical needs resulting from the pandemic, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation have committed $25 million to support organizations on the frontlines responding to the outbreak. Included in that commitment is $10 million being directed to support food banks, school meal programs and organizations that provide access to food for underserved populations.”

Walmart is the largest donor to Food Banks Canada (FBC), a national network of food charities. Walmart Canada’s Senior VP, Logistics and Supply Chain, John Bayliss, is the Vice Chair of FBC’s Board of Directors. Ilya Bahar is the Board’s Treasurer—he also advises the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) on “numerous industry initiatives.”

RCC’s Board includes Marie-Claude Bacon, an executive of Quebec-based grocery-giant Metro Inc., as well as Sam Wankowski, Chief Operations Officer of Walmart Canada. Board Members also include Doug Nathanson, Senior VP, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Sobeys, Inc., as well as Pietro Nenci, the VP, GMM Corporate Foods of Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd.

RCC has two grocery-specific positions on its Government Relations team, both of whom have worked for the federal government. One was a regulator for Health Canada, as well as the Department of Fisheries, and now is “primarily responsible to help shape government policy to ensure a resilient and competitive landscape for retailers who operate in Canada.”

RCC has a minimum wage stance which it states plainly: “For retailers to remain competitive, raises to minimum wage should be in line with changes to the Consumer Price Index in each region.” Their blog documents lobbying activities directed at the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, pushing for minimal changes and opposing any deviation from solely-CPI tied increases.

On October 1, a blog post on RCC’s website on the current minimum wage situation in Newfoundland and Labrador read:

“Over the past few years, RCC was successful in convincing the government to move to a system whereby the province’s minimum wage is now determined by the previous year’s change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI)… Following these special increases, the commitment is to return to the CPI formula where minimum wage increases only occur on April 1st of each year.”

Co-opting the Minimum Wage Review Process

This was established after an Independent Minimum Wage Review was undertaken by the provincial government according to regulations in the Labour Standards Act. Stemming from relentless work on behalf of Common Front NL—a coalition of labour unions, social justice and community groups—a consultation process was enforced after a commitment from then-Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Bernard Davis to create an advisory committee.

Alley Doyle was appointed to the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee by the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL) as an employee representative. She suggests that the Committee, and subsequent Review process itself, failed before it even started.

“If asked, Minister Mitchelmore (who was appointed to Davis’ role in September last year) would say that the committee did a thorough consultation and analysis of minimum wage in this province. I can confirm that this is not accurate, as it was an impossible task under the restrictions placed upon us,” Doyle told the Independent.

“First, the committee membership itself was immediately a barrier to fair representation since there were only three of us. A committee of five, which actually included a minimum wage worker, would have allowed for voting when consensus wasn’t reached.”

Doyle argued that the committee members should have been compensated for their time, given a budget to do in-person consultations across the province, and allotted ample time to complete the work. Instead, she says they had none.

“Frustratingly, the employer representative on the committee had a personal stake in the matter, since she owns several businesses in the City of St. John’s. She allowed this conflict of interest to loudly colour the process, often taking up valuable time and space during our meetings to discuss how difficult the current economy had been on her business and repeatedly stating that any increase in minimum wage would be detrimental to her personally,” Doyle explained. “Worse still, the Chair of the committee was a business owner himself [and] also a member of the Liberal party’s executive. Although he was meant to be ‘impartial,’ how could he not have had a bias as well?”

“Plus, as the labour representative, I had no recent experience as a low or minimum wage worker,” Doyle added. “I’m privileged to work in a unionized environment where my pay and benefits were fought for and won by those before me. Increasing the minimum wage was not directly connected to my livelihood, but for the employer representative and Chair, it was directly connected to their wealth.”

(Employer representative Brenda O’Reilly declined comment for this article when contacted by the Independent. Committee Chair Steve Tessier did not respond at all.)

The committee was tasked with creating a questionnaire for public consultation—a process which Doyle contends was extremely problematic.

“Public input was restricted to snail mail, email, or the EngageNL website, which required personal information to register in order to complete the questionnaire. This was a barrier to participation, particularly for low-wage workers who have a valid fear of losing their jobs for speaking out,” Doyle recalled. “The three of us had very polarized views on minimum wage, and were given a very short timeframe to determine which questions would be included in the questionnaire. This resulted in us not being able to have an in-person discussion regarding the content, and so agreed through email to split the questionnaire into questions for workers and employers in separate sections.”

“What ended up happening is that the questions proposed by the employer representative—and less so, by the Chair—were not reflective of the Terms of Reference,” she continued. “They included questions about the information we already had (like demographics), and topics irrelevant to the purpose of the committee (such as universal basic income). Meanwhile, I purposely created the employee questions around the Terms of Reference with the goal to obtain the experiences and opinions on minimum wage. Instead of digging in my heels to have the employer questions reframed to make them fair, I allowed for as much time as possible for the public to participate given the short window imposed on us.”

The committee also held consultations for stakeholder groups to discuss minimum wage from their perspectives. The Retail Council of Canada—and by proxy, the interests of Walmart Inc., and other grocery and retail giants whose executives guide the Board—was invited to participate.

“The in-person presentations to the committee were comprised of business lobby groups, worker advocacy groups, labour unions, and internal government departments. The business groups came into the consultations swinging,” Doyle explained. “There was a lot of fear mongering. The lack of compassion or consideration for how poverty wages harm the most marginalized workers was repulsive. They spoke about workers as if they were just part of their inventory, like tables or menus. Just another expense line in their budget.”

“Keeping the minimum wage linked to CPI was another focus, which is a reasonable argument if minimum wage was close to the cost of living. Connecting CPI to minimum wage without an immediate increase would mean we wouldn’t reach $15 an hour until 2030. The employer groups’ compromise to help workers while also not jeopardizing local business was to increase the provincial personal tax exemption threshold. This ‘solution’ meant that the province would lose millions of dollars each year, but would completely take away the responsibility of employers to have to pay their staff a living wage.”

The millions of dollars mentioned were from figures compiled by the Department of Finance to show that increasing the Low Income Tax Reduction threshold would cost the province $109 million—a move the department concluded “would transfer cost from employers to government.”

The Dangerous Depoliticization of Food Insecurity

Undermining public processes that have direct affects on residents’ income is one way that food retailers in Canada influence food insecurity by keeping workers impoverished. Incessantly lobbying governments to keep wages low undermines food access.

“The personal stories of workers were cut out of the final report because, I was told, it ‘would make the report too long,’” Alley Doyle explained to the Independent. “Despite being the backbone of our economy, workers are dismissed as being unknowledgeable, incompetent and incapable of taking any leadership in a political role or otherwise. The Minimum Wage Review exemplified this despite my best efforts—the whole process was ineffective and exhausting for everyone involved.”

On October 29, the CEO of the provincial organization Food First NL reminded the province about who else is tirelessly fighting for food access: “Charity volunteers and employees are forced to run flat-out just to stay still in a system that sets big-picture change aside.”

In no uncertain terms, Josh Smee reiterated what researchers and policy analysts have been saying for decades.

“Food insecurity is about poverty,” he stated in the Telegram. “The first thing to know is that charity is not going to solve the problem.”

But charity still takes centre stage in the so-called fight against hunger. Food Banks Canada engages in research on food insecurity and plays an advocacy role on issues around food access. It openly recognizes that food banks “are not a viable long-term response to hunger” and “devote part of their activities to reducing the need for food assistance.”

However, when analyzing FBC’s publications it’s important to remember the interests which direct their work and support their initiatives. In 2019, an overwhelming majority of their cash revenue came from corporate donors.

Not only does Walmart guide the network’s activities from its position on the Board, but along with Loblaw Companies Limited they are FBC’s Retail Food Program Partners—a program which redistributes food from the companies to food banks across the country. FBC claims that the food distributed is “safe, quality food” but also that the program “helps reduce the cost of food waste experienced by retailers.”

“There is a lot of food waste,” the Walmart staff member in Corner Brook told the Independent. “Anytime a customer decides they don’t want the milk or frozen product they brought to our register (which is frequent), it gets logged and discarded rather than put back on the shelf. That happens an untold number of times a day. So there’s tremendous food waste produced by big box stores or any supermarket with a similar policy.”

“As for the food bank, I’m sure a lot of people get the help they need from Walmart’s donations and that’s a very good thing. I’m equally sure a number of those people are employed by Walmart, and I’ve been told as much.”

Nowhere in FBC’s federal policy recommendations are wages mentioned, despite maintaining that “the root cause of food bank use is, and always has been, related to poverty and low income.” Instead of suggestions to increase low-income earners wages, FBC calls for the Government of Canada to “immediately boost the incomes of those living in poverty” by allowing households that don’t qualify for income support programs—ie. the working poor—to avail of the non-cash benefits allocated to those on social assistance. The report also implored the feds to implement a basic income—a move that would surely reduce public pressure on corporations to pay fair wages, while costing the public tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.

FBC also uses its platform to lobby the Canadian government to increase the value of donated food which corporations can deduct from their Income Tax—actively attempting to reduce public funds, and increase Walmart’s, Loblaw’s, and other donors’ profits.

At the same time, these contributions are welcomed by the very community groups and food banks that are stretched to their limits, year after year, with no end—or even attention to the root of the problem—in sight. In Newfoundland and Labrador, this manifests through mainstream media’s largely uncritical stories of donations by corporations who refuse to pay adequate wages.

The interests of these corporations was even present on a recent panel meant to discuss food insecurity and food bank usage in St. John’s. Second Harvest has pegged themselves as “Canada’s largest food rescue charity.” One of their main financial donors is the Walmart Foundation, and mid-range financial supporters include Loblaws, George Weston Limited, and Cargill—a global food processor which has been under fire for mistreatment of workers throughout the pandemic.

Donors of surplus food include Loblaw (and its many subsidiaries), Cargill, and Walmart Canada. Second Harvest’s work is premised on the argument that they rescue unsold food from landfills, based on a report they prepared in collaboration with an organization in Ontario called Value Chain Management International (VCMI). Meanwhile, VCMI’s own clientele include Loblaw Companies Limited and its mandate clearly states “VCM International is dedicated to improving the profitability and competitiveness of commercial businesses.”

The Reality of Food Bank ‘Food’

The most recent data from FBC shows that 59 percent of food banks surveyed in Newfoundland and Labrador reported an increase in visits between 2018 and 2019, with an increase of 5.8 percent overall. 14.7 percent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were experiencing some degree of food insecurity before the pandemic, and 18.3 percent of the province’s children lived in food-insecure households. A disproportionately high prevalence of the most severe food insecurity occurs in Indigenous regions in northern Labrador, where multilayered colonial policies contradict the rights of sovereign governments and their communities, impacting residents’ access to wild food—as well as healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate store-bought food.

But food bank usage is still not an accurate indicator of true food insecurity figures—according to research published just this year, most food insecure households do not use food banks.

These counts seriously underestimate both the number and nature of people experiencing food insecurity. Although Newfoundland and Labrador’s food banks recorded 10,704 total visits last year, this is not the full picture. A 2015 examination of food bank usage compared with food insecurity rates found that among those families experiencing the most severe food insecurity in our country, only 40 percent of them avail of charity despite going without food at times.

Research has found that the voluntary and donation-based models of operation often lead to short and erratic opening hours. Eligibility criteria excludes many food-insecure individuals, donations run out, and needs go unmet.

The food bank staff member who spoke to the Independent pointed out other constraints on the system:

“We try to work with our clients around these issues as they come up—if someone tells us they don’t have access to kitchen appliances we’ll try to give them food that doesn’t need to be cooked, including pull-top cans. But this can only go so far, because we can only work with the specific items we have in our pantry at that time. Clearly this can drastically restrict what that person is able to eat, and if that person were given money to buy their own groceries they could meet their needs much better than we can in that moment. The same is true when it comes to dietary restrictions and cultural sensitivity in general. Because we have such a limited supply in terms of the kind of products in our pantry at any given time, it can sometimes be challenging to fulfill the particular needs of every client.”

Food at these banks is typically of seriously limited quality: past ‘best before’ dates, highly processed, and distributed in hampers which only provide one to three days’ worth of food. It is the leftovers redirected by corporations—through sophisticated networks they do not bear the cost of maintaining—in order to avoid the cost (to their reputations and profits) of destroying unsold food.

“Most of the food circulated by food banks is canned. There are good reasons for this of course, because it can be stored and given out over a longer period of time. However, a number of people who use food banks simply don’t have access to a stove or microwave that allows them to cook the food they’re given. Some people don’t even have access to a can opener.”

The staff member explained that the needs of food bank users in Newfoundland and Labrador go beyond access to food. People without adequate incomes to purchase their own food also experience other material deprivation such as lacking safe shelter, or the resources to prepare or store food. So, while the recent approval of a pilot project allowing hunters to donate wild game to food banks is a testament to the drive and goodwill of local activists, it also exposes a disconnect between the provincial government (as well as general public) and the needs of those who are forced to avail of these services.

Finally, 7.4 percent of food bank visits recorded in 2019 were from people with job income. But research also indicates that the charitable nature of these programs means many people with jobs often feel that the fact they are employed means they should not use them.

These are just some of the ways that due to stigma, shame, and lack of access, many in need in our province go unaccounted for. The realities of an unprecedented pandemic (and its widely-shared economic hardships) have not erased that shame.

“I had some people actually apologize to me for coming in, saying it wasn’t something they would normally do but they simply couldn’t go any longer because their cupboards were running empty,” the food bank worker expressed to the Independent.

As some of the foremost researchers on food insecurity in Canada have advocated, the enabling role of governments—who encourage donated food—means there is no accountability for the adequacy of food assistance. Canada has no laws ensuring that social assistance enables recipients to purchase the food they need. And as long as food banks persist there will be no public pressure on governments to act.

The Immediate Crisis Requires Immediate Change

It’s important to remember that the pandemic was not the first cause for cupboards to run unexpectedly bare in our province this year, either. One example of how food banks do not reach the majority of hungry people in our communities is the story of a low-income senior couple who were found splitting tins of sausages for dinner during the Snowmageddon emergency—and refusing charity even when it knocked on their door.

Alley Doyle remembers how that crisis affected experiences of food insecurity for working people, too.

“We submitted our final report to Mitchelmore the day the snow started falling for what became Snowmageddon,” she told the Independent. “The blizzard that led to a state of emergency was tragic in many other ways, but the timing exposed how little protection low-wage workers have for reasons beyond their control.”

On Thanksgiving, the Prime Minister of Canada participated in a curated video purchasing items at a Metro grocery store. The chain is currently being investigated for price-fixing by the Competition Bureau, and possibly for colluding to end Covid-pay. Trudeau’s post read:

“If you’re able to, consider grabbing an extra item or two for the local food bank and help a family in need. This long weekend, let’s continue to be there for one another – it’s the Canadian way.”

Just months before, one of the Liberal government’s own Members of Parliament called major grocers to the House of Commons to answer for their concerted ending of pandemic-related bonus pay. The effect of Walmart cutting their hazard pay was felt in our own province.

“The atmosphere has been one of intense stress,” the Walmart worker told the Independent. “The bonus and the 27-day wage increase of $2/hour were a genuine boost to morale, because a lot of financial burdens were lightened (coworkers mentioned finally being able to pay off credit cards, etc). But of course now that it’s ended we’re doing more work with the same amount of staff pulling multiple duties, being exposed to potential health dangers every day without extra compensation.”

“The right to refuse unsafe work is waived for you on pain of unemployment, basically. Symbolic gestures like Blue Shirt Fridays and Essential Worker pendants replace actual, tangible improvements in our lives in the form of higher wages. Is the work we’re doing now less​ essential than it was for those 27 days?”

Andrew Furey, the newly-minted Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, recently ran a leadership campaign focused on his own experience with charity. Having founded two himself, he is no stranger to the shortcomings of how far a charitable response can be stretched in order to alleviate the symptoms of a systemic problem.

He’s also aware of the toll that the pandemic has taken on low-income earners in his own province. In one of his last blog posts on June 8, he writes that those who could not afford much had to somehow get by with less… We also need to take a closer look at the social issues that existed long before COVID-19 and remain today, maybe even amplified more. The pandemic pulled the blanket off deeper issues such as food insecurity and a lack of safety nets for the most vulnerable.”

On October 29, the NDP Caucus of Newfoundland and Labrador garnered an all-party unanimous agreement to explore a basic income for the province. The party’s news release excitedly stated that “we now have an opportunity to truly address common stressors that people in precarious income situations in our province face every single day, this is just the first step, and we have many more to take.”

Any food bank staff member, anti-poverty advocacy group, or individual experiencing food insecurity in the province could have already told them that there are steps the government can take right now to address these stressors. The province can immediately reinstate and reimburse income supports that they should have never rescinded in the first place, and reform the income-testing requirements of our social assistance program which has left thousands currently without income. They can start the process of raising the minimum wage to $15, as recommended by researchers and advocacy groups, such as 15 and Fairness NL, as a means of approaching a real living wage. And they can push back against major corporate interests that co-opt important public processes in order to flog agendas that impoverish our communities (and the public purse).

While exploring all avenues towards eradicating poverty in our province is certainly welcome, we run the risk of believing there is a single silver bullet where there is not one. All the while, tens of thousands of residents are living in a perpetual state of emergency—one extending before and beyond the Covid-19 crisis.

The very existence of food banks—regardless of who uses them, the quality of the food they receive, and what little relief they actually have the capacity to provide—allows government to send the message that food insecurity is being adequately handled in Newfoundland and Labrador. Their expansion as a solution is promoted by corporate grocers to secure spaces to dump their waste while simultaneously ensuring the policies that actually do address the root causes of food insecurity never materialize.

In reality, food charity is putting a band-aid on a deadly and insidious gangrene—which corporate power and government inaction allows to fester in our communities.

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash.

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