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Food banks a ‘Band-Aid’ solution to poverty: Victoria advocacy group

Church member and food bank volunteer Peggy Wilmot holds an arm full of food in the St. John the Divine Church basement. Money and donations of food is collected from the St. John the Divine congregation and distributed to those in need twice weekly. - Sharon Tiffin/News staff
Church member and food bank volunteer Peggy Wilmot holds an arm full of food in the St. John the Divine Church basement. Money and donations of food is collected from the St. John the Divine congregation and distributed to those in need twice weekly.
— image credit: Sharon Tiffin/News staff

Peggy Wilmot recalls a young mother walking through the door at St. John the Divine to collect her monthly quota from the church’s food bank.

Wilmot was excited to tell her about the Good Food Box program, a $6 hamper of affordable produce sourced from local farmers. “We started bringing in sample boxes, showing people what they could get,” she says.

The woman seemed interested, but when she found out the price of the fresh kale, squash and root vegetables, she said she simply couldn’t afford it.

“She said, ‘I get $610 a month, and my rent is $640. There’s nothing left over. In fact, I still have to scramble to figure out how I can make up the difference,’” Wilmot says.

The woman’s story is becoming more common, as food banks struggle to meet a demand that has risen 31 per cent since 2007 across Canada.

The increased burden on charities, churches and non-profits is also increasing pressure on higher levels of government to create real food security in communities.

Food Banks Canada numbers show that 882,000 people accessed food banks across the country last year, an all-time high. More troubling, 11 per cent of those people used the service for the first time.

The three food banks in the municipality of Victoria – the Mustard Seed and smaller services at St. John the Divine and Saint Vincent de Paul – have to restrict their users to one visit each month to keep the system afloat.

“It’s mopping the floor instead of fixing the roof,” says Wilmot.

She is lobbying government to recognize the problem through her organization, Faith in Action.

“Churches in particular have responded to this need by donating to a food bank, but the longer we do it, the more we realize it’s letting the government off the hook.”

Over the past 30 years, a system meant to provide temporary relief to the most vulnerable populations has matured into a societal pillar.

Welfare, minimum wage and old age pension payments haven’t kept up with inflation rates or the rising cost of food and housing.

Some of the problem is that Island residents rely on up to 95 per cent of their food being imported from the mainland and beyond, says Linda Geggie of the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable.

Geggie and her colleagues promote local food security through dozens of initiatives, such as community gardening, education about the origins of meat, produce and grain, and even cooking classes.

“That’s kind of a lost skill,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know how to use whole foods and how to cook and store and prepare food.”

The introduction of farmer-led programs is also helping train a new generation of local farmers on small-scale intensive agriculture.

“These older farmers, they don’t want to see their farms die because there’s no one to take it on,” Geggie says.

She acknowledges food banks are a “Band-Aid solution” to a much bigger issue.

“It isn’t just about people not having food, it’s about poverty and the high cost of housing, and living wage and having enough means to access healthy foods.”

The guaranteed annual income needs to rise, Wilmot agrees, to reduce the reliance of the “working poor” on food banks.

“If people had enough to buy the food they needed to survive, that would solve things,” she says.

“If people had adequate housing that didn’t cost them 100 per cent of their income, then they’d have money left over to buy food.”

St. John the Divine’s food bank began 16 years ago as an emergency food service, but Wilmot admits the title no longer suits the level of need.

In the coming weeks, Faith in Action will approach Saanich, Oak Bay and other Capital Region municipalities to pass its food banks motion with the hope of creating a stronger voice at higher levels of government. “We’re not eliminating food banks, we’re eliminating the need for food banks,” Wilmot says.

For more information on the Faith in Action campaign, visit bcpovertyreduction.ca/imagine-a-world-without-food-banks/.

To learn more about local food security programs, visit lifecyclesproject.ca or call your local neighbourhood association.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

City councillor helps push food bank plea forward

Victoria Coun. Lisa Helps put forward a motion last Thursday at city council’s governance and priorities committee meeting to address the increasing reliance on food banks.

The motion asks the City of Victoria to encourage the provincial and federal governments to ensure food security for all citizens and eliminate the need for food banks by 2018.

“What’s really thrilling for me is that the motion came forward from a whole range of citizens that work together in a coalition,” Helps says of the Faith in Action initiative. “It’s faith groups from across the spectrum ... that really don’t see food banks as a sustainable way to feed people with dignity.”

The motion passed unanimously and also directs staff to dedicate resources to food security programs as part of the City’s Official Community Plan. Helps said the city is already doing what it can for food security at a local level by creating orchards and community gardens, but the real change will come from higher levels of government.

dpalmer@vicnews.com

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