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The hunger games

(article, Culinate staff)

In her Big City column for the New York Times recently, Ginia Bellafante took a look at the shifting demographics and economics of food banks. The short version? It's a classic problem of supply and demand. 

Here's the demand side: With the recession and the recent cuts to SNAP, the federal food-stamp program, more and more people are turning to food banks. As Bellafante noted, food banks were originally created to help the homeless get through a brief rough patch. Nowadays their chief clients are working families and senior citizens, who rely on the banks to get enough food to eat every month, month after month after month. 

Back in 2010, the nonprofit Feeding America estimated that 37 million Americans, or one out of every eight people, relied on food banks. Since 2006, the number of Americans using food banks has jumped 50 percent.

"Hunger," wrote Bellafante, "has come to exist as the status quo." And not just hunger — food banks now routinely provide non-food essentials such as diapers and shampoo, which aren't covered by food stamps.

Meanwhile, on the supply side, the increased efficiency of the modern supermarket translates into much less oversupply that can be donated to food banks. In addition, the proliferation of discount grocery retailers such as Grocery Outlet means that supermarkets often choose to sell their oversupply to the discounters instead of giving it away to food banks. Finally, the global economy often purchases overstock, delivering goods of perhaps questionable quality to countries where regulations, as Bellafante said, "may be less stringent."

So there are more people relying on food banks, which have less food to hand out. Oh, and there are far fewer food banks in the country now than a decade ago; recession-fueled budget cuts have shut many doors.

Americans, wrote Bellafante, need to rethink how they help the hungry. "In this country at this time of year, many of us are called to the food drive, the ritual of delivering canned cranberries, or turkeys or breads to a designated location from which they must be transported to a warehouse and then sorted, edited and so on," she noted. "This, too, isn’t quite as simple as it may seem, presenting the problem of . . . 'high touch,' the involvement of too many hands driving up costs and reducing efficiency."

To that end, Bellafante wants us to forget the cans of pumpkin purée and switch to cold hard cash: "As it happens, there is little to surpass the efficiency of money. While it may feel more intimately virtuous, more morally instructive, to tell a small child that you’ll be packing up food for the needy and taking it to school, it may ultimately be more effective just to have that child sit and watch you write a check." (Should you feel so inclined this Thanksgiving weekend, check out the Feeding America webpage; it has a '"Find search function.)

You might also take a moment to consider what Nick Saul wrote this past spring in the Canadian magazine The Walrus: that food banks are not the answer.

bq. We need to stop cheering on an approach that has already failed, and instead focus on the root of the problem: people are hungry because they are poor. They do not have enough money for food because of inadequate income supports, minimum wages that do not cover the bills, and the lack of affordable housing and child care. Instead of further entrenching food banks that let governments — and all of us — off the hook, we need to build organizations that foster the political will to tackle poverty and establish social programs, employment strategies, and supports that give all Canadians access to affordable, healthy meals. In the end, the costs of inequality and poor health are borne by all of us, straining our health care system, and compromising the safety of our neighbourhoods and the productivity of our nation.