How a food-bank controversy highlights issues with the system

When it comes to food banks, some experts say there’s a lack of accountability — and they’re calling for new ways to support Ontarians in need
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jun 25, 2020
In April, the federal government announced $100 million for food banks and local food organizations. (iStock/Jovanmandic)



In April, Elevate NWO, a non-profit in Thunder Bay that serves people living with HIV and Hepatitis C, closed its food bank for a week because fundraising had dried up as a result of the pandemic — and because the Regional Food Distribution Association, which it relies on for resources, stopped providing donated food for four weeks.

Many of Thunder Bay’s food banks, including Elevate NWO, are members of the RFDA, a non-profit that distributes donated food to its roughly 50 member organizations in northwestern Ontario. In the early days of the pandemic, the RFDA met with members to decide how to respond to COVID-19 restrictions. They opted to close most local food banks and shift to a central, city-wide model. Elevate NWO was not in favour of the move.

“This is a system designed to help us help people, and [the RFDA] withdrew their support at a time when we were all faced with such difficulties,” says Holly Gauvin, executive director of Elevate NWO.

Before the pandemic, Elevate NWO received donated food from the RFDA every Tuesday. But between mid-April (when the central food bank started) and mid-May, Gauvin, says Elevate NWO didn’t receive anything — the RFDA began sending donated food to Elevate NWO again, periodically starting May 18.

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The RFDA’s executive director, Volker Kromm, says the primary reason it stopped providing Elevate NWO with donated food because there had been a consensus that the centralized model was safest. And, he adds, Elevate NWO should not be considered a food bank: “How do we service those that aren’t real food banks? They’re little fringe groups with very specialized needs.”

Between April and May, Gauvin says, there was a lack of clear communication between Elevate NWO and the RFDA, and she remains frustrated by the situation: “There just seems to be a lack of transparency, and a lack of accountability. How is the organization held accountable?”

Kromm says there is no formal contract between the RFDA and its member organizations: “We agree that we will service them if we’re able, and we will do that in a manner that’s fair and equitable.”

One solution, Gauvin suggests, could be to develop a formalized agreement between the RFDA and its members. “To get this issue resolved, what I need to see is an accountability agreement,” she says. “You have this right, and this responsibility, and this is how you are accountable to each other. We’re now being left out of the conversation.”

Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, says that situations such as the one facing Elevate NWO reflect a structural issue with food banks: “One of the defining features of this system is that there’s no accountability.” Food banks, she notes, are usually extra-governmental organizations that rely on charitable donations to provide food to people in need. “Whoever thought that voluntary organizations, with some random amount of money, could somehow take responsibility for feeding people?” she says. “When was that ever an appropriate or good idea?”

She thinks we should look to the government for solutions: “If we’ve got people who are not able to get enough to eat with the income supports that they are able to access, we need to tackle that.”

Since the pandemic began, governments have funnelled millions of dollars into Canada’s food banking system. At the end of March, the province announced an $8 million partnership with Feed Ontario to launch the Emergency Food Boxes program. In April, the federal government announced $100 million for food banks and local food organizations. Later that month, the City of Thunder Bay injected $170,000 into four organizations that provide food and shelter, including $40,000 for the RFDA.

The federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, says she recognizes food banks should be a “last resort” and points to the federal government’s temporary income supports, such as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit and an extension of the Canada Child Benefit. “We have demonstrated in different ways that we do care,” says Bibeau. “And we’re trying to make things better.”

Kristen Oliver, a city councillor in Thunder Bay and a board member of the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy, says most of the municipal tax base goes to funding municipal services and that there’s not much left over for the “social crisis that we’re dealing with in this community.”

“I often say the feds have the money, the province has the power, and the municipalities have the problems,” says Oliver. “In a perfect world, we would see the basic income reinstated, and we would hopefully start to see less reliance on food banks.”

In a 2016 article, Tarasuk expressed optimism about the potential of Ontario’s basic-income pilot project to reduce food insecurity and improve the overall health of Ontarians. The pilot began in 2017 and provided participants in five communities, including Thunder Bay, up to $17,000 a year. A survey published by the Basic Income Canada Network in 2019 found that 74 per cent of respondents who were part of the program were able to make healthier food choices, and 28 per cent said they’d stopped using food banks altogether. The basic-income pilot project was cancelled by the Ford government in 2018.

The Ontario government told via email that it remains “focused on improving social assistance and employment programs” but wouldn’t comment further on the basic-income pilot project, as “this matter is subject to ongoing litigation.” The spokesperson says the province will “continue to assess food security issues and identify any opportunities to address them,” adding that it’s developing a five-year poverty reduction strategy.

“Food is a human right,” says Gauvin, who continues her fight for more accountability and transparency within Thunder Bay’s food-banking system. “We should be looking for solutions that keep people safe, that keep people well, that [allow] people to manage their physical and mental health.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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