Written by: Victoria Veenstra
Each year just after Christmas a group of friends and I would go to the local Salvation Army to help them sort through all of their Christmas food donations. It is always very satisfying putting types of cans together and sorting dates. I never questioned that we were making a difference.
This year marked the 40th anniversary of Canada’s first food bank in Edmonton. Many food banks were set up as a temporary response to a recession in the 1980’s, but the rate of food insecurity in the country has only increased since then, according to Stats Canada. Approximately 4.4 million people, including 1.2 million children (that’s 1 in 8 households) report some level of food insecurity. And as the COVID pandemic lags on and we begin a new year, even more community kitchens and mini-pantries are springing up and there seems to be a bigger push to donate to your local food bank. This on-the-ground experience is supported by the numbers. So perhaps we’re becoming even more aware of the problem of food insecurity? But with this awareness comes challenging new questions. Are these pantries effective? What do people need so that they can stop going to food banks? And who thought it was a good idea to donate a can of octopus anyways? (Yes, I really sorted that!)
When a food bank like Calgary’s can tout statistics like, “14.7 million pounds of food sorted and distributed in 90,864 hampers in one fiscal year” we all get pretty excited. But asking more questions starts to show a fuller picture. Even as a well-oiled machine, Calgary has a huge system to maintain. This particular food bank has a 60,000 square foot warehouse, 45 full-time staff, and 168 volunteers working every day. Not surprisingly, staff is one of their biggest expenses with $2.9 million of its $3.78 million in operating costs going to staff salaries and benefits. Even the federal government sprang into action and promised a massive injection of cash to Food Banks Canada. And yet, is all of this help really HELPING? Experts like Valerie Tarasuk, a professor at the University of Toronto, aren’t quite convinced: “[I] fear it will further entrench a charitable system that isn’t solving the problem.”
So perhaps these ways of helping may be doing more harm than good. What if they are making people dependent on short-term solutions, focusing only on symptoms while dismissing long-term answers and/or underlying problems?
A New Way Forward?
How could churches look at partnering with local community organizations and supporting global causes for God’s justice and mercy to be more fully experienced? Tarasuk has been studying food insecurity for nearly 30 years. She believes the answer isn’t to ‘donate more to the food banks’ but to advocate for policy change to get at the heart of the problem; it’s about a lack of income for people, not just a lack of food.
And there are examples that we can look at as we seek better solutions. Northern Scotland is currently in the midst of looking at implementing policy solutions to address poverty at a systemic level. Closer to home, John Klein-Geltink, a current Diaconal Coach of Diaconal Ministries and volunteer with Operation Sharing, has seen poverty addressed in several different ways to further dignity, relationships, and an exit from poverty.
So the next time a food drive seems like a noble opportunity or setting up a community fridge on your church’s property seems like a helpful solution, what questions should a church be asking first?
- Who are we serving and have we included them in our conversations?
- What could our church do in place of food drives?
- Do we have the time (or do we want to have the time) to look into long-term, sustainable, and truly helpful ways of supporting people inside and outside of our church walls?
- What resources are available in our community that we could invest in?
- What is one thing our diaconate could do tomorrow to move towards more asset-based solutions?
So where can your church start?
If these questions seem complex and you’re not sure where to start, here are some practical ways that you can begin learning (re-learning and unlearning) and re-evaluating your church’s approaches to food insecurity:
- Participate in a webinar series with Jodi Koeman (Church with Community Coordinator, World Renew US). This 5-part series starts February 3rd and will explore Food Access, Insecurity, and Disparity. Guest speakers will share the way their church or organization is working to end hunger and participants will learn about innovative and dignified approaches to help their church move from charity to dignity and justice. Find out more HERE.
- Evaluate your current Benevolence Policy.
- Don’t have one? Find some samples HERE! Or contact your local Diaconal Coach for more ideas and resources.
- Tap into resources like Diaconal Ministries’ recent partnership with Ms. Anja Attema who offers Financial Life Coaching, to walk alongside persons and help them realize their own financial goals.
- Carve out time for more learning:
- Recommended Reading:
- “Having Nothing, Possessing Everything; Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places,” by Mike Mather. This book will not only open your eyes to the possibilities but it will inspire you to act! This could be a great first-step for diaconates and congregations to move towards more asset-based community engagement and development.
- “When Helping Hurts”, by Brian Flikkert & Steve Corbett
- “Helping Without Hurting: Church Benevolence”, by Brian Flikkert & Steve Corbett
- “Becoming Whole; Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream”, by Brian Fikkert & Kelly M. Kapic
- Recommended Reading:
- Book a Helping Without Harming Workshop with Diaconal Ministries’ staff!
for our next article where we’ll share about a few churches and organizations which are working hard to fight food insecurity in our great nation and beyond!