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Rethink your food bank

Three examples of innovation for improved food security

“Poverty is a symptom of an unhealthy community,” says Stephen Giuliano, Chaplain and Director of Oxford county’s Operation Sharing. The remedy is people coming together. Relationship-building among those from a variety of economic circumstances is key to all of Operation Sharing’s programs. Guiliano also encourages innovative approaches to poverty-related issues in a workshop called the Creative Concept Training Centre that he leads as Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Huron University College.

He’s not the only Canadian trying creative approaches to combatting poverty. Communities in Red Deer, Alberta and St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick are also implementing new alternatives to traditional food banks.

There is no us and them. There is only us.

Both sides of the counter

Bullwinkle’s Eatery, a joint project of Moose Family Centre, Salvation Army and Operation Sharing, opened in Woodstock, Ontario on February 25, 2016. It is a soup kitchen alternative; in Giuliano’s words, “I don’t think we need soup kitchens anymore.” At Bullwinkle’s, principles of integration and dignity mean that people of various backgrounds are side-by-side in the kitchen and dining room as staff and trainees in the programs. Vanessa Guiliano, a trained chef (who also happens to be married to Stephen!), teaches culinary training sessions. Participants join an eight-week course related to food preparation, nutrition and serving and receive a Food Handler’s Certificate. The eatery is open to anyone for Tuesday and Thursday lunch, with a minimum donation of 50 cents and a fair price cost of $7. Meal cards can be purchased to cover the cost of eight meals, allowing for some privacy as to the amount paid.

On October 27, my children Anna and Peter and I shared lunch with Operation Sharing Board Member John Klein-Geltink, who is also a Diaconal Ministry Developer with the Christian Reformed Church. At the lunch buffet, we could choose from salad, soup, quiche, spaghetti with vegetable sauce or meat sauce, and pie for dessert – all delicious. The eatery has what Giuliano describes as an “English pub” atmosphere with dark-wood furniture, cozy and comfortable. Among the volunteers who helped to renovate the space was a group of young people staying at Maranatha Christian Reformed Church as part of Youth Unlimited’s Project SERVE in July of 2015.

Over lunch, Klein-Geltink explained the philosophy of alleviating the effects of poverty by coming alongside people, saying, “There is no us and them. There is only us.” In the Extended Family Project, for example, an individual or family who are working at getting out of poverty is partnered with a group of two or three people to “walk the walk” together – not doing for but rather being with one another along the way. In this way, he said, “we can learn from those we are trying to help.” 

Stephen Guiliano affirmed that connection is as important in the dining room as the nutritious food. Being hungry is difficult, and so is loneliness. Meeting the basic need for food matters, and so does strengthening people’s feeling of belonging: “People want a sense of life, not just a sense of existence.”

The coming-together mentality of Bullwinkle’s Eatery shares some of the same values as the 541 Eatery & Exchange in Hamilton, though the models differ – see the Globe and Mail’s article “Eatery’s currency concept brings hope to Hamilton’s Barton Street East” to learn how buttons can become a form of currency and a means of neighbours sharing with each other (Oct. 6, 2016). At both Bullwinkle’s and 541 Eatery & Exchange, the aim is to improve food security in a way that is “physically and psychologically healthy and dignified,” in Giuliano’s words, with people who have different financial means side-by-side on both sides of the counter.

Inside Bullwinkles Eatery (above) and staff with trainees ready for customers in Woodstock, Ont.

The downside of traditional food banks

For the past 10 years, Operation Sharing has been partnering with local grocery stores to provide people with grocery cards instead of non-perishable food items in a traditional food bank setting. The cards can be used to buy non-taxable items, and signatures are used to verify that the intended person is using the card that was given to them when they met with staff or volunteers. A tracking system is in place, and the cards cannot be sold. These meetings help with other forms of support; Klein-Geltink said, “People do need food, but they need more than food. Dignity and choice are a very important part of the whole food equation.”

Traditional food banks, Stephen Guiliano says, are like a second-tier option that require a lot of space, as well as volunteer time and energy. As a columnist for the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, he published an article with the provocative title, “Are food banks making people sick?” Among other reasons, he argues that non-perishable food is often higher in salt and processed carbohydrates, which is especially a concern for people who live with diabetes or hypertension. He added that his critique of the traditional food bank model is not of kind-hearted individuals who are striving to help their neighbours but of the way the system creates hierarchies. Change takes time, however, and “people only have a tolerance for so much change.”

Krystal Kromm-Wieler leads a Food for Friends program in Red Deer, Alberta, which was inspired by Operation Sharing’s model. She described the approach as “more bold and logical” than traditional food banks, and she explained the rationale for their program in a promotional video: “This is a redistribution of food equity in terms of who gets what kinds of food. This means that lower-income families now have more opportunities to buy their groceries in the same lineup as those who are food secure.” Gathering food in traditional food banks may feel less dignified than shopping in a grocery store, and Giuliano experienced this feeling of humiliation first-hand when he was between jobs and relied on a food bank to feed himself: “I wondered if I should ‘dress down’ on the day I was going to the food bank.” Mary, an Operation Sharing client, has stated that the gift card method gives her more dignity. When CBC News: The National ran a story on Operation Sharing’s approach, she said, “This way, I don’t feel ashamed.”  

Guiliano holds up gift cards.

St. Andrews-by-the-Sea

Holly Johnson of St.-Andrew's-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick knew of people who had attempted to start a food bank several times, but the general consensus was that their lovely and largely affluent resort town didn’t need one. Johnson found out otherwise one day when her 10-year-old son’s friend told him that he was hungry and had eaten very little in the past two days. She asked her son, “What do you want to do?” He said, “I want to help,” and she agreed. An informal group gathered to get this family through the winter by helping to provide food and pay utility bills. The mother of this family told Johnson, “I’m not alone, you know;” she knew of other families in need of assistance.

So Johnson and others began looking for a space to house a food bank. While they were looking for a space to rent or borrow, a friend of hers forwarded her the Toronto Star article “Shutting food bank first step in program to add respect to feeding hungry,” which last year featured Operation Sharing’s program. She got in touch with Giuliano and ran the idea by other people involved in food banks, who urged her to go for it and give it a try. She developed a great working relationship with Joey Craswell of Joey’s Independent Foods.

A small band of committed volunteers – “it’s a true community effort” – runs the gift card initiative, which operates under the umbrella of the St. Stephen food bank of a nearby town. Funds come from many sources, including barbeques in the grocery store parking lot, water bottle sales on Canada Day, and private donations of a thousand dollars or more at a time. All funds raised go directly to the gift cards, as the group does not have staff and Wesley United Church donates the space used for meetings. She noted that people have been very generous, and that when funds for purchasing cards get low, “you get what you need when you need it.” The volunteers strive to protect the confidentiality of their clients, who are “literally friends and neighbours.”

Johnson (left) and Craswell.

Food for Friends volunteers in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, N.B.

Addressing income inequality

Krystal Kromm-Wieler of the Red Deer Food for Friends program acknowledged that emergency food support, while essential in the short term, is not the ultimate answer for food security. It is a reaction to the immediate need for food. In her words, “The bigger picture is income inequality and what municipal, provincial and federal levels of government are going to do to address this growing concern. Food for Friends will advocate for poverty reduction strategies and stay current with recommendations from different community organizations and the government for increasing access to food.” The Food for Friends model offers a place to start – at the very least, a place to start a conversation. Maybe it’s time your church had this conversation, and moved beyond the traditional food bank.

Who foots the bill?

In Oxford County, the Food for Friends program is funded by customers who are asked by cashiers to add 25 cents to their grocery bill at participating grocery stories. The funds collected are all distributed in the food card system; no overhead costs are covered by these donations. At times, Operation Sharing has special incentives in order to increase donations. In the 14-day period before Thanksgiving and Christmas, some of the stores involved in the program offered corporate matching of the donated funds. Guiliano said that at one location, an average of 27 cents per shopping trip was collected, adding up to $19,500 over the two weeks before Thanksgiving in 2016. The program raises almost $100,000 every year, which is distributed to over 300 families.

The small amount of each donation means that many people are able to donate: “This allows everybody to give to each other, whether you are rich or poor or middle class.” It also means that people who have relied on the cards at one point can also be donors. John Klein-Geltink notes that the store in Ingersoll with the highest use of the program also sees the highest number of donations.

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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