Are food banks an effective response to addressing food insecurity and poverty?

Guest blog from Kathy Dobson

When food banks started in Canada as an emergency and temporary measure in response to the economic recession in the 80s, they were intended to provide relief from immediate hunger as an emergency food source, not address food insecurity or poverty. Yet these so-called ‘temporary’ food charity providers are on the increase in Canada.

A panel discussion surrounding issues of poverty and food insecurity, ‘From Hunger to Health’ was recently held in Ottawa, as part of the second annual Spur festival. The discussion explored some of the root causes – and potential solutions – to the 75,000 people in Ottawa who go hungry each day.

Panel member Dr. Elaine Power, an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies at Queen’s University, said outright that Food banks aren’t working. “Only 20 to 30 percent of food insecure households ever go to food banks.” One of the problems with food banks, explained Power, is that they provide a comforting illusion of people not being hungry.

“Food banks show that we care,” said Power, “but they have never gone away, though they were never intended to be permanent.” The danger, said Power, is that food banks can give us a false sense of having dealt with the issue of hungry Canadians. “We forget about hunger because we think food banks are solving the problem.”

Moderator Karen Secord, manager of Parkdale Food Centre in Ottawa, said food banks are always going to be needed, though, including the 29 in Ottawa alone, until we finally solve the issue of poverty in Canada. “If people don’t have an income,” said Secord, “then the need for food banks is going to continue.”

However, not everyone on the panel seemed to recognize and acknowledge the full extent and real threat of going hungry in Canada.

Panelist Dr. Pierre Desrochers, an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto, claimed that poverty has not only decreased over the past few generations, he also suggested what he seemed to view as an obvious and simple solution to poverty in Canada.

“In my opinion the best anti-poverty issue is a job,” said Desrochers. “We should focus on programs of job creation and build from there.”

Despite some murmurs of surprise and disapproval from several members of the audience in response to Desrochers’s ‘best anti-poverty’ solution, he continued on, claiming that, “Humanity has done more to lift people out of poverty in the last generation than ever before,” and that it used to be “historically that it was the king and a few people who could afford a decent meal.” In addition to job creation, Desrochers also suggested lowering the price of food would make it more easily available to those in need.

Power received an enthusiastic round of applause when she countered with, “The issue for the millions of people in this country is not the price of food, it’s not having enough money.”

Kathy Dobson (left) in conversation with Elaine Power (right) and another attendee at the Hunger to Health event in Ottawa

Kathy Dobson (left) in conversation with Elaine Power (right) and another attendee at the Hunger to Health event in Ottawa

“There is dignity in being able to chose the food you eat and what to feed your family,” added panel member Kaitrin Doll, an anti-poverty community engagement worker at the Coalition of Community Health and Resource Centres.

In addition to dignity, regular access to nutritional food is also an important health issue. Powers said food insecurity is a leading cause of significantly increased health care costs as well. “The poorer you are, the shorter your life, the unhealthier you are. Poor people die sooner than wealthier people.”

Power said she has a dream for Canada.

“One where we value the common humanity of all and ensure that everyone has what they need to live a socially acceptable life,” said Power. “Right now we don’t have that.”


Kathy Dobson is a journalist, author, and a doctoral student in the Communication Studies program at Carleton University. You can learn more about her work at

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