How Food Banks Impoverish Us All

The blog has been silent while I searched for meaning and relevance in the blur of events surrounding my tiny, private life.  Against the backdrop of Trumped up Trudeauosities, the valiant and thwarted left deflecting against a global right maelstrom, amidst cyclones of wartime rhetoric,  and even more devastating hurricanes of actual force, how are my observations and feelings worthy of utterance?  Why would others bother to notice?

The only answer I can give for the egotistical impulse to blog is that others may be bothered by the same things, and if they’ve taken comfort from watching me flame out in the past, they might be sympathetic.  May be.  If.  Might.

So, maybe if you’re out there, you might have noticed a puff piece about food banks by Isabel Teotonio in The Star last week.  If you recall my blog about sharing food with the poor, you’ll understand why I’m depressed to hear that the failure of the food industry is being used as a defence of food banks.

The headline highlighted the fact that supermarkets reject 30% of produce due to imperfections, such as shape and color, and this, among other factors, creates a surplus of edible food, which is, nonetheless, destined for the landfill.  The article went on to argue that food banks like Second Harvest are rescuing a portion of that food and making it available for consumption by those who have difficulty securing sufficient food for themselves or their families.  A disgustingly high proportion of food bank users, Teotonio reminds us, are children.

Let’s widen the frame of this picture and put the idea of a food bank in its rightful place.  As the argument goes, we waste more than enough food, from field to table to landfill, to nourish the poor.  The industry and its consumers are so thoughtless in the way they harvest, process, distribute, and retail, that $31 billion goes to waste, while the poor go hungry.

Rather than address the waste in this food chain, making industry responsible both for changing its production, distribution and retail methods and for helping to change consumer habits, our society has decided to divert the waste from overflowing dumpsters into the hungry mouths of the poor.  To accomplish this, we have to charitably fund fleets of trucks, food bank staff salaries, warehouse space, and “stores,” where the marginal among us must make pigrimmage to survive.

This ritual humiliation is an important part of food-banking.  It’s necessary for food bank fund raisers to maintain the impression that, but for food banks, the helpless poor would go hungry.  Without intercepting the waste and trucking it to the depots, and without forcing marginal families to come and pick through the cardboard boxes of stuff to fill their bags, who knows how they’d survive?

Philanthropists and government are reasonably affected by this distopic nightmare, and food banks have flourished, rising once again to recession-era levels of usage.  However food banks are simply another layer of waste, amounting to millions of dollars annually in Toronto alone, adding to the $31 billion they purport to remedy.

All of this waste, and additional waste to remedy the waste, is tolerated. Even worse, it is funded, because the business, voluntary, and public sectors have tacitly agreed that there is no other way.  They’d have you believe that food banks are a solution to the problem of the poor.  The poor have too little money, so it’s their responsibility to pull up their socks or trudge down to food banks full of stuff, intercepted on its way to the landfill or to be used as animal feed.  The government won’t relent and provide enough for people to nourish themselves, and the food industry isn't going to flex a percentage point of its profits.  The consequence of food banks is that charitable agencies and the poor are actually protecting both industry and government from pressure to satisfy this most basic of social needs.

The crime here is that there are obvious solutions that spare both the taxpayer and the shareholder.  After all, $31 billion in waste, plus the operating costs of charitable organizations like food banks, is vastly more than is needed to supplement the meagre budgets of people trying to feed themselves with no income other than welfare payments, disability insurance, or old age pensions.  It’s roughly the budget of the entire Canadian military: army, air force, and navy.  It’s almost the size of the federal deficit, and it's roughly equal to the total spending on social welfare, in all its forms, by the Government of Canada.  Only a fraction of this waste, if recovered in the form of either food or money, would be sufficient to generously supplement the quantity and quality of affordable food on the tables, crates, and park benches of our most destitute citizens.

Why start with the premise that this waste cannot be reduced?  What a morally corrupt way to shift responsibility from those in power to those who are powerless!

The forms of waste, and the means of reducing it, are not mysterious.  Some food is never harvested because of doubt that it will sell at a high enough price.  Some is discarded at harvest because it doesn't meet industry specifications for size, color, shape, etc.  Some goes bad due to logistical failures in transport.  Some is lost to sorting, trimming, and packaging at processing plants.  Some is thrown out by consumers because it comes packaged in odd or excessive quantities (e.g., wieners are sold in packages of eight, while hot dog buns are sold by the dozen or half dozen – go figure).  Even more waste accrues when food is misordered or misrouted between the factory or depot and the retail location.  And, finally, some just gets too close to its 'best-before' date, and it goes out on the loading dock of the grocery store, destined for the food bank, because that costs the grocery chain less than trucking it to the dump at its own expense and paying the tippage fees to leave it there.

It’s far more convenient if you’re in industry or government to ignore all of this waste and get behind food banks instead.  It’s far less convenient if you’re a single mother, looking across your kitchen table at hungry little faces, wishing that you could offer them some fresh fruit or vegetables, rather than canned, frozen, or dried foods, and a selection of whatever baked goods are left after they’ve been picked over by people with real choices.

I won’t go on.  Governments can face down industry and compel them, by means of policy, to help out, just as they do with affordable housing, creating a share for the poor at low costs.  In turn, industry can take responsibility for maintaining its profit margins by focusing on reducing its wasteful methods.  And then, the poor can shop where everyone else does, without the stigma of lining up at food banks.

Elsewhere, I’ve laid out one way of delivering the recovered value of industry waste to the poor.  It involved coordinating credit data between the major grocery chains and the various welfare agencies to provide needs-based debit cards, charged monthly, that recipients use to purchase their food at wholesale rather than retail prices, effectively doubling their purchasing power at the grocery store.  The food industry can easily recover any potential profit loss by looking at their own supply chain waste, and by moving more product over the counter through sales that might otherwise have gone out back over the loading into a food bank truck.

I’ve got nothing against the good people who run and fund food banks.  I’m just sad that the declaration of need isn’t heard as a call for real solutions.  Instead, as Teotonio’s article demonstrates, the obscene waste, juxtaposed with extreme social needs, is being used to argue for reinvestment in the status quo instead of a fundamental rethink of how we share food.

Even if you blame the poor for their plight, that doesn’t absolve industry for being wasteful of the earth’s bounty, enabled by the energy and tax breaks permitted by an indulgent government.  Nor does it absolve governments of the need to set industry standards and look after our most vulnerable citizens.  You cannot blame the poor for the fact that we have $31 billion more food than we can eat, but we can only feed them through charity, and can only deliver charity with a wholesome helping of humiliation in a lineup at a food bank.

Last time I wrote about this, I touched on the hideous use of moral hazard as a counter argument.  When I suggested a possible solution to the food security crisis among the poor, a friend asked why anyone would pay for food if some among us were getting it free or at a subsidized price.

I have patience for arguments that are merely mean, or simply stupid.  But not for both.  It makes me even more sad than the self-serving oblivion of industry, government, and charity that makes beggars of innocent children.

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