Talking Turkeys

Food banks were supposed to be a temporary measure, not an institution. Could our energies be better spent tackling income inequality, rather than institutionalizing charity?

Today is the day CBC Radio goes off the air — at least in my house. Today I heard the first plug for the annual CBC Turkey Drive. And there will be hundreds of these plugs in the days leading up to Christmas. I don’t want to hear them and I won’t be donating a turkey.

To put it bluntly, the CBC Turkey Drive should not exist.

I’m not being a curmudgeon or a Scrooge. I very much want everyone to have a Christmas (or Hanukkah) dinner they’ll enjoy. But holding an annual food drive is way outside the mandate of the national broadcaster. And a more important point is that food banks are an extremely problematic response to hunger in our communities.

Food banks were established in Canada in the early 1980s as a response to a crippling recession. They were meant to be a temporary measure since the recession was seen as a passing thing. The worst of the recession ended but the food banks remained. Post-recession, people were still hungry. Some had fallen out of the middle class permanently; others couldn’t get into the middle class. Both before and after the recession, a significant portion of Canadians were working poor. And even then, long before Stephen Harper’s anti-government government, social assistance rates were insufficient to ensure food security.

The people who started food banks were motivated by compassion. They could see the economic devastation around them and wanted to help. This is good, as is the fact that they did not see food banks as a long-term response to hunger in Canada but as a stop-gap measure.

In those days, there was some understanding that food banks were not actually part of the solution. There was a consensus that food banks represented an undesirable way to meet peoples’ basic needs. Although we didn’t use the term ‘food security’ then, people knew that food banks did not mean food security. Largely run by volunteers and almost entirely dependent on charity, food banks could not possibly supply people with a variety of quality nutritious foods. All they could and can do is give people enough cheap fats (think Vienna sausages) and filling carbohydrates (such as Kraft Dinner) to stay alive. Food bank diets are not healthy. They generally do not include fresh vegetables and fruits and they feature an over-abundance of canned, heavily salted tinned items — with little choice.

In those days, food banks were also seen as an affront to people’s dignity, harkening back, as they did, to the soup kitchens of the Great Depression. In those days, we were not too far away from the Dirty ‘30s in time. Our parents and grandparents could remember the humiliation of hunger that could be sated only through begging, which is what people are forced to do at food banks —
no matter how nice the food banks volunteers are and no matter how much they want to help.

 It astonishes me that CBC chooses to advance the institutionalization of food banks. CBC’s role is to investigate the reasons we have food banks and to question unacceptably high poverty rates.

After the ruin of World War II most Western countries decided that citizens’ basic needs would best be met not through charity but through employment and through pooling our resources and redistributing wealth through government. How old-fashioned and even quaint this sounds now; how out of touch, and perhaps to some, vaguely Leninist. That’s because the collapse of the Soviet Empire elevated capitalism to untouchable status. I’m not against capitalism, having owned a business for most of my career. But I see its inadequacies, chief among them being its failure to meet the basic needs of citizens including housing and food. We should not confuse democracy with capitalism, no matter how much the cracked Fraser Institute and the bumpkin Harper government want us to.

The only way everyone enjoys food security—steadily available affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food—is through adequate incomes. We need to put that issue back on the table, despite its radical tone in this conservative era.

We—the donors—feel good when we hand in our turkey but I know from talking to food bank ‘clients’ that they feel awful collecting it, especially in front of their children. Put yourself in their place for a second — yikes.

Banks and other large companies get kudos for donating to food banks. I assume they get tax write-offs as well. Is it right that corporations actually benefit from the misery of food banks? Is this the best way to demonstrate our concern for the 26,000 people in this province who experience hunger? Food banks are institutionalized now but things were different once when we were not so inured to the rights and feelings of others.

It astonishes me that CBC chooses to advance the institutionalization of food banks. CBC’s role is to investigate the reasons we have food banks and to question unacceptably high poverty rates. According to “Policy 1.1.1: CBC/Radio-Canada Mandate” on its own web site, the CBC’s purpose is to focus on programming, not on engaging in or promoting charity. And why this charity? There is an inequity here in that one particular charity was chosen — by whom we do not know.

So I will not listen to the feel-good tones of CBC hosts plugging a turkey drive. I will hope, instead, that we begin serious discussions about ending the food bank system and hunger in ways that respect people’s dignity.

Maura Hanrahan is the chair of the Humanities Programme at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus, where she is also cross-appointed to the Environmental Policy Institute. She is a best-selling Canadian author whose writing has won awards in the UK, the US, and Canada. Her most recent book is the novel Sheilagh’s Brush (Inanna, Toronto) which won an Independent Press Award (IPPY).

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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