More people in Toronto are visiting the Daily Bread Food Bank than ever before. But how healthy is the food they’re receiving?
Over the summer, I fell on hard times, so, to curb my expenses, I paid a visit to the Daily Bread Food Bank. I figured that if I had to rely on the generosity of others to get through to my next cheque, so be it. I swallowed my pride, gathered my ID and pay stubs, stepped through the doors of the Church of Jesus Christ at 275 Vaughan Rd., and descended the basement stairs to my local Food Bank outlet.
A feeling of shame came over me as I registered with the volunteer sitting behind the desk in the small, subterranean office. A certain stigma comes with accepting charity; no one wants to do it, but in these times of austerity, I had to put compunctions aside. I provided my driver’s licence and SIN card to prove my identity, some pay stubs to establish my level of income. The volunteer shoved my info inside a manila folder and stacked it on top of a pile of dozens of other folders bursting with papers, and provided me with a Hamper Choice Sheet, which I examined curiously. As a single person with no dependents, I was permitted to use the Food Bank once a month.
Since that first visit in June, I’ve had to return to the Food Bank a few more times. On the most recent occasion, I looked around and saw a lot of people like me—young adults in a rough patch, a lot of them in silent repose, avoiding eye contact. In the back of the waiting room, a group of women discussed Native-Canadian status cards and ODSP benefits, while most were quiet and reserved as though wishing they were invisible. An elderly woman with a walker shuffled in and sat beside me.
According to the Daily Bread Food Bank’s Who’s Hungry report, the number of people using Food Banks in Toronto is increasing. University grads, new Canadians, the elderly, Status Indians, and the under/unemployed alike frequent its outlets. In almost every jurisdiction, visits are up, especially in Toronto’s low-income areas. The study also shows a strong correlation between unemployment rates and Food Bank visits. But given the increasing dependency on Food Banks, and the strain on resources it can create, is it possible to lead a healthy lifestyle on a Food Bank diet?
“Out of 10, I’d say [the quality of food is] a six,” says Nancy (not her real name), a Food Bank patron. “Generally, they try to go as nutritious as they can. You get a little bit of everything: You get some yogurt, some vegetables, ya know? They try to give you a little from all the food groups. It could be better, but they try.”
Not all Food Banks are created equally. Some have a clockwork-efficient distribution system while, at others, you might want to bring a book to read. After waiting for an hour on this recent visit to the Vaughan Road outlet, patrons grew restless, myself included. But in the end, I received a decent haul of goods:
- 1 family size box of Oatmeal Crisp
- 1L carton of homogenized milk
- 1 bag of white potatoes
- 1 package of Primo fusilli pasta
- Several handfuls of granola bars and snacks
- 1 bottle of Irn-Bru Scottish soft drink
- Several jars of cooking sauces
- 1 McCormick mystery jar with no label
- 1/2 loaf of fresh-baked multigrain bread, unsliced
- A dozen multigrain hamburger buns
- 3 cans of Admiral light flaked tuna in water
- 1 jar of Nut’ N Better creamy peanut butter
- 1 package of Bob’s Red Mill steel cut oats
- 1 package of Golden Maple chicken franks
- 1 one pound tube of Golden Maple ground chicken
- 2 packages of soda crackers
- 1 package of oatcake crackers
- 1 can of Heinz brown beans in tomato sauce
- 2 SPC Healthy Choice fruit cups
- 1 horribly mutated carrot (which I’m afraid to eat)
The hamper covered all the food groups, but the bulk of what’s here is high in carbs, salt, or sugar. The Admiral tuna may be the soggiest, sloppiest can of fish I’ve ever tried to make a sandwich with, and the ground chicken isn’t so much ground as pureed. This pink protein slurry does not inspire visions of appetizing meals; Marjan Mekis, a fellow Food Bank user that day, says he combines it with ground beef and pork in a kind of meatloaf trifecta. On the other hand, the multigrain breads, steel-cut oats, milk, and cereal are tasty and nutritious.
Nothing I took home was beyond its expiration date, but this isn’t always the case. Last July, I was given a box of Starbucks instant-coffee packets that were four months past their March 2012 best-before date; unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I started getting stomach pains and diarrhea. Even at this most recent visit, the volunteer in the canned-goods store-room offered me a jar of cooking sauce with a 2011 expiration date, and seemed surprised when I pointed it out.
I don’t have to worry about feeding a family at this stage in my life, but those who do would be hard-pressed to survive on Food Bank provisions. Nancy, with a family of five at home, only receives two litres of milk per week—barely enough to last two days. The two bags of food I brought home might last a maximum of a week if I stretch it out and skip the occasional meal.
“It’s not that you’re going to live on this, but it will be an adjunct to other things,” said Mekis as he strolled down Vaughan Road with his weekly haul, a pair of drum sticks jutting out of his messenger bag. “You might have to buy some meat. If you have sauce and pasta, and you buy ground beef, then you’ve got something. My main thing is I’m grateful for whatever I get.”
The issue of poor nutrition at food banks is well documented. Can Food Banks Sustain Nutrient Requirements? (Irwin et al.), a study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 2007, found that, in a survey of 30 hampers sourced in Southwestern Ontario, “99 per cent of the hampers did not provide three days worth of nutrients.” Vitamins and minerals were lacking in particular, while the carbohydrate levels were above the daily required intake defined in Canada’s Food Guide.
The Food Bank works hard to fill the nutritional gaps left in their inventory through donations from food companies and the public. Money donated to the Food Bank goes towards buying higher-quality items.
“We look at protein, we look at fruits and vegetables, we look at dairy, we look at the more high nutritional foods to supplement what’s donated, because we can’t control what’s donated,” says Gail Nyberg, executive director for the Food Bank. “But we can make sure we have rice. We can make sure we have good-quality pasta sauce. We can make sure we have eggs. We can make sure that they’re good quality proteins.”
But while they do everything in their power to feed a hungry metropolis, food banks still aren’t a true solution to starvation. Rachel Loopstra, a PhD student of nutritional sciences at U of T, has studied food insecurity and the Daily Bread Food Bank at length. Her research paper on the topic will be released in the Canadian Public Policy Journal this December.
In an email she writes: “We think the more pertinent question is why do we have these rates of household food insecurity in Canada and why is there a continued focus on charity as a response to the problem, even though it is well-known that food banks cannot tackle the root of the problem: inadequate household financial resources.
“Over 50 per cent of food-insecure households are reliant on wages as their main source of income, suggesting that it is a problem of low wages: short-term, part-time employment, single-vs.-dual earner households, and inadequacy of income transfers provided to supplement low-employment incomes.”
Eating healthy is expensive—just compare the price tags at any organic/health-food specialty store to those at No Frills. Food banks can’t always provide a nutritious, balanced diet, but that’s not what they’re necessarily designed to do. They are, at best, a supplement for people facing tough times, a subsidy to the weekly grocery list. They can treat the symptoms of hunger, but not the cause.