Food security is not just a problem in lower-income nations; it is also an ever-growing problem in high-income nations such as the United States and Canada. Even though rich nations such as Canada and the United States has enough food to feed everyone in their respective countries, there are large numbers of individuals and families who are food insecure. Food security means that people have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times to maintain a healthy life. If rich nations have enough food to feed everyone, why is it that since the 1980s, food banks have become institutionalised in North America? So, it begs the question: how effective are food banks in alleviating food insecurity?

What is a Food Bank?

A food bank is typically a non-profit organisation that collects food via donations and distributes the donated items to people in need. Some food banks are small in scale and solely rely on donations from the public, while others are much larger and work with the state or government to distribute food to those within the welfare system.

In the 1960s, US President Richard Nixon created government assistance programmes as the solution to end hunger in the United States. The goal of these programmes was to significantly diminish national hunger (estimated at 15 million Americans in the 1960s) through a complex regime that included the Food Stamp Programme. Even though Congress and President Nixon acknowledged that there is no simple or quick solution to ending food insecurity, they would later hurt the progress on hunger by implementing budget cuts to the social welfare programs, i.e., food stamps. As a consequence, national hunger in America multiplied a decade later. Since the 1980s, food banks have become institutionalised and commonplace in the nation. The shift from the government concerning itself with food as a fundamental human right has now solely been dropped onto the laps of charities and other private organisations. In Canada, there has been documented parallels to the United States in which food insecurity and food banks has encroached their charitable sector. 

My family and I personally have a connection with food banks in which my mum works for a non-profit organisation that deals with at-risk families and individuals in New Jersey. One of its main programmes is a food pantry in which food is distributed throughout the month and especially during the peak holiday season (Thanksgiving and Christmas). Their non-profit is relatively small, and their food pantry works with government assistance programs where they work on a referral basis only. Every month their food pantry receives allocated food goods from the County’s food bank and they  store and distribute them during that month. If the pantry runs out of food, they can go to the food bank and ‘shop’ for items in the free section, or they pay for the healthier and nutritious food items, i.e., vegetables. They can also alleviate a pantry shortage with intermittent surplus donations from organisations and sometimes tractor-trailers who drop off food they can no longer sell because of a cosmetic defect to the items.

 

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Figure 1: Volunteers sorting food donations 

The Effectiveness of Food Banks

Food security is when people have access and availability to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Regarding availability, food banks typically distribute foods on a monthly basis to other organisations and on a schedule to the public. Also, food stock is often unpredictable due to the dependence on donations and assistance from larger companies. People in need are not able to regularly access large quantities of food because food banks often serve on a first-come basis. Nutritionally, donated food is often canned non-perishables, heavily processed or cheap baked good items. In the case of my mum’s job, people often complain about the lack of variety and not being able to consume vegetables and other nutritionally substantial items.

Concerning its effectiveness, families and individuals have had to depend on food banks on a repeated basis. In its conception, the aim was to provide emergency aid to those in need of food assistance in the hopes that they will eventually become food secure. The goal was not for people to become reliant on charities and other forms of aid to avoid hunger.

 

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Figure 2: Typical items donated to food banks

 

Food banks are not and should not be viewed as a long-term solution to food insecurity. There are a few issues concerning food banks in North America:

  1. Food banks are highly susceptible to food shortages, and this can sometimes mean little to no food for families and individuals in need. As Riches (2002, pg. 655) mentions in their article, “The bottom line is that food banks are supply-dependent and must frequently ration scarce supplies of donated goods.”
  2. Food items donated to food banks are often canned, and processed goods and are lacking nutritionally healthy items to live a healthy life.
  3. Reoccurring governmental budget cuts means an increase in individuals and families turning to charities and food banks to make up the sudden deficit in food. More people in need does not equate to more donations to these social assistance institutions.

Conclusion

In the case of North America, food banks and other charitable social assistance programmes are not means in which to solve food security and inequality. The system of food banks is intended to be an emergency aid relief to those suddenly affected by food insecurity. It is not designed to take the place of governmental obligations whose purpose is to protect vulnerable people. Food banks have become a way in which governments neglect their functions and duties to its people in their time of need. Food insecurity can only be tackled and remedied by governmental changes and actions. However, one cannot help but have a pessimistic outlook on food security when witnessing government budget cuts to the welfare system and other social safety nets. These cuts causes more and more people to rely on food banks, soup kitchens, etc. to survive. Unless the government owns up to its responsibilities to their citizens and implements policies to alleviate food insecurity, this will be an ongoing tale of uncertain times.