Forty years after the first Canadian food bank opened its doors, Kawartha Lakes Food Source leader says the root causes of food bank use are still with us
Neil Couch first visited a food bank in 2011. A particularly challenging divorce that year had left him homeless, living at A Place Called Home.
He’d had a colourful life. After returning from active duty in the Canadian Armed Forces between 1986 and 1994, Couch found himself struggling with PTSD and turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with his anxiety and night terrors. As a master corporal, he was based out of West Germany, and had done tours in Somalia, Cyprus and Afghanistan.
In 2013, Couch was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer. While fighting his own battle against cancer, he lost his wife to aggressive ovarian cancer. This left him as a single father. Between his PTSD and cancer, Couch has been unable to hold down a steady job. He picked up a variety of manual labour positions over the years but was unable to maintain them as his mental and physical health deteriorated.
Couch, now 53, is a recipient of Ontario Works. Each month, after all his bills are paid, he is left with approximately $80 in his account to take care of himself and the two teenaged children who still live at home with him. Stagnant social assistance rates and rapidly rising costs of living make it impossible to cover his family’s essential costs of living.
His need for food bank support “comes and goes,” he says. “It depends on if there is an unexpected expense or higher bill than usual. If I don’t need the help one month then I won’t use them. There’s always someone out there worse off than me.”
Couch admits that his experience visiting food banks has been mostly good, but that there’s still a stigma. “Sometimes it can feel that people look down on you for using a food bank,” he says. Lately, Neil has been visiting the Lindsay Community Food Market (LCFM), a non-traditional food bank operated by Kawartha Lakes Food Source, when he needs groceries for his family.
The Food Market allows clients to choose their foods as they would be able to at a grocery store. During COVID-19, the LCFM has developed a delivery model since many clients don’t have access to a reliable vehicle. This new approach significantly improves the Food Market’s ability to ensure social distancing to keep volunteers, clients, staff, donors and community members as safe as possible.
“The market is good,” Neil says. “They’re down to earth; there’s no stigma there. I like their delivery service.”
Food banks a recent invention
To most Canadians, it may seem as though food banks have always existed. However, food banks are a recent innovation, with the first in the world being established in 1967 in Phoenix, Arizona.
The first Canadian food bank was founded in 1981 in Edmonton, Alta., by the Edmonton Gleaners Association. It was born out of two key realizations. First, hunger was affecting the lives of many people in the community. Second, edible food was being wasted in the city. In April 1980, an ad hoc group began investigating the possibility of establishing a food bank to serve citizens in Edmonton’s inner city.
The rise in food banks coincided with the push toward neoliberalism in the 1980s. While Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and the United States’ Ronald Reagan were the key faces of this more extreme form of capitalism, Canada’s Brian Mulroney also fixated on increased deregulation and privatization, and sought broader free trade agreements.
The expansion and entrenchment of globalization meant these policies resulted in a restructuring of the state in size and strength under the assumption that the free market would benefit everyone. In the 1990s, under both Conservative and Liberal governments federally and provincially, the social safety net was reduced to prioritize the creation of a ”good business climate.” However, inequality has only increased.
According to David Macdonald from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in 1980, the gap between the top paid CEOs in Canada and the average worker was about 40 times the average income for comparison purposes. By 2014, the top Canadian CEOs made 208 times the amount of an average worker. By 2018, a total of 87 Canadian citizens had the equivalent wealth of 12 million people and 20 per cent of the population controlled 68 per cent of the wealth.
Food banks as emergency
Food banks are intended to provide immediate emergency help for people unable to afford sufficient food. While each individual’s or family’s reasons for using a food bank are complex, there are some common factors that have caused people to rely on what was meant to be a temporary solution.
Heather Kirby, executive director of Kawartha Lakes Food Source, attributes food bank usage “in large part to an inadequate social safety net, precarious employment, unaffordable housing and systemic racism and inequality.”
KLFS, a grassroots non-profit organization, has been working to stock the shelves of food banks and community members in Kawartha Lakes by operating a central distribution centre for the last 18 years. It procures, sorts, stores and distributes food and other household essentials to food banks. This organizational model allows food banks to focus their efforts on providing their clients the best possible experience because KLFS takes care of ensuring they have a consistent quality and quantity of food to give.
Retired United Church minister, Rev. Rohan Wijesinghe, remembers the need he saw during his time with Queen Street United Church, from 1997 to 2008. Every year, he says, “there would be eight or nine people who would tap on the church doors for some help.
“I would oblige using monies in the benevolent fund which was at my discretion to spend.”
But in his third year there were 38 people who came for emergency assistance, a number which made him take “serious note of this jump in numbers.”
“I shared my concern with other members of the ministerial association,” says Wijesinghe. “Several other pastors had also noticed a sudden increase of people who were in need of help.”
In response to this sudden increase, Queen Street United Church reached out to the larger community and set up a coalition focused on poverty. It brought together organizations such as Women’s Resources, Canada Mental Health Association, Community Care, the fire department, local police and A Place Called Home. The coalition and Rotary Club of Lindsay then gave Wijesinghe, Dave Parrott, Peter Milner and Will Gilbert the job of doing research on hunger locally. Their findings demonstrated that poverty was a rapidly growing concern.
Under the leadership of Rotary, Kawartha Lakes Food Source was founded in 2002. Its mission evolved to “Supporting those who feed our hungry.”
Today, there are 14 food banks across Kawartha Lakes. Four are located in Lindsay; the others are in Bobcaygeon, Coboconk, Dunsford, Fenelon Falls, Janetville, Kinmount, Little Britain, Omemee, Pontypool and Woodville. Ten of these food banks are members of KLFS. Their membership provides them with monthly shipments of non-perishables to restock shelves as well as weekly shipments of fresh eggs, milk, protein and produce.
In the face of the adversity he’s experienced, Couch has been resilient. He has been sober for 17 years, crediting his recovery largely to his children, who motivate him to do better and keep going, as well as the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Reach for Recovery Program.
“Everything that I have been through has led me to be who I am now,” he says. “I’m at the point in my recovery that I am able to give back to others.” Couch is actively involved in the Canadian Mental Health Association’s community, with a goal of trying to help others also see the light at the end of the tunnel. He still picks up odd jobs when he is able, and he still visits the food bank from time to time.
Without the support of food banks, Couch says he likely would have lost his kids. “I wouldn’t have been able to provide for them,” he says. “I would have rather known that they were somewhere that they were well fed.”
“It’s a shame that we need food banks, but they are so helpful to those who do need the service,” he adds. I couldn’t have survived without them.”