A few friends have shared with me the latest Scary Mommy article about “Share Tables” popping up in US schools, where wealthier (presumably white) people leave unwanted food on a table where poor kids can go and take from the table and not go hungry and VOILÁ poverty and food insecurity solved, RIGHT? Wrong. Jesus Christ, so much WRONG.
The article making the rounds these days–and its literally just one more in a long series of articles about how wealthy people come down from on high to save the hungry masses with their cast-off, unwanted food like Marie Antoinette and her “let them eat cake” business–comes from such a lovely, good place. It comes from a place of wanting to help fellow humans, especially those seen as one of the most vulnerable demographics: children. It also acknowledges what an enormous problem food insecurity is in Canada. It’s great we’re talking about it. It is heartbreaking to know how many children live in poverty, in food insecure situations, and who experience barriers to nutrition. One in five children (yes, 20%) go to school hungry. The numbers are even greater in Aboriginal communities – 1 in 2. And for immigrants and newcomers, there is a 2.5 times greater risk of being food insecure.
It is horrifying when you dig into the research around how restricted access to good quality nutrition can reduce learning and productivity, factor into mental health, increase risk of chronic disease, and even are linked to obesity. Children are more likely to participate in bullying and are more easily frustrated, irritated, and sensitive when hungry.
I’m not pooping on your desire to help and I’m not telling you that the food won’t fill a hole in an empty tummy to a few kids. But a Share Table it isn’t a solution. It is a crowd-sourced adhesive bandage designed to make you feel better about the children you know are suffering. It makes you feel like you’re helping.
But I think there are much better ways we can address food insecurity in school children.
Most food donated is of poor quality. If you don’t want it or don’t want to eat it, why should a child have to eat it?
In the photos in the article making the rounds these days, the children have some apples (good!) some chocolate milk (ugh, seriously), some fruit cups (basically a bowl of white sugar), and it looks like some canned pasta. Listen, I enjoyed my share of canned Beef Ravioli in my college days but it’s low in good nutrition. Almost always, canned pasta is high in sodium, high in preservatives, high in fat, and low in protein and fibre. It also needs utensils and a bowl and a way of heating it up.
Last year, an article floated around about the silly things that people have donated to the food bank. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank used it as a polite way to illustrate that your garbage shouldn’t be someone’s food and that a Food Bank has greater buying power if you just donate money. As well, the Food Bank has to expend resources getting rid of your dated items or your garbage, and that’s exactly what would happen at a Share Table. Someone would need to be responsible for checking the food for food safety, making sure it’s suitable to eat and won’t make anyone sick. Someone would also need to ensure that allergies are considered with the food on the table. Basically, your cast off garbage because someone’s problem to manage.
Share Tables only serve to separate children whose guardian(s) are able to provide lots of food, from those who do not have the same situation at home, and it’s on the kids to wear the badge of shame if they’re hungry.
Imagine you are eight.
Grade two is pretty awesome: you have a few friends you really enjoy hanging out with and your teacher is pretty nice. School is okay. Recently, your family got a charitable grant to cover the cost of you playing soccer this year and your mom managed to find a pair of used cleats at the thrift shop. You’re pretty stoked about that because last year your mom couldn’t afford any extras like that.
It’s recess, and you don’t have anything to snack on so you’re the first one out the door to get to the playground. Today, (but not every day) you had a piece of toast at home before school, but your tummy is growling a bit because now its 10:45 and you’ve had gym and used up what little energy that loaf of white bread bought at a dollar store provides. You don’t know it, but you do 60% of your learning before lunchtime. That’s right, more than half.
You are headed outside to play soccer with your friends and there’s a table of random food in the hallway. Taking a good look around first to make sure no one sees you, you move to sneak a granola bar off the table, but around the corner comes that girl that seems to have everything. She sneers at you, and says “Ew gross! My mom keeps giving those to me but I don’t like cranberries, they’re gross, so I put them here for the poor kids.”
Embarrassed, you leave the granola bar where it was and say “Yeah, I was just looking at what kind it was, I think it is the one I got, too, I don’t like them either.” You skip out of the school, tummy rumbling and feeling a little bit out of it. You are used to waiting until lunch for something else to eat, and have gotten used to ignoring how your stomach feels, so this is like most other days.
Ask yourself why a child should be the one to self-identify that they are hungry and select cast-off food? Why should they need to reach out to the table and take something while they watch their peers dump their garbage on there?
Children should be focused on learning at school, and on making beneficial social and emotional connections. They should not navigating the shame of not having enough to eat in a very public way.
We have all heard stories of school staff who keep snacks in their desk at school, and quietly hand out food to those they know aren’t getting enough to eat. This is a better way to address it as it removes the public stigma, but the best way to address children who are hungry is to ensure that their families are able to select and afford enough nutritious food that their children are not hungry.
Shifting the Statistics:
A disproportionately high number of children who are going to school hungry come from lone parent homes, many of whom are attempting to survive on social assistance. A very large portion of all lone parent homes in New Westminster are headed by women according to 2016 census data (2,320 women compared to 585 men). A very large portion of their monthly income goes to housing, at the expense of other important things like food or electricity or transportation.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that the Metro Vancouver area (where I live, and from where I write this post) is in a deep, relentless, housing crisis. Recently, I read that the average family will now need to earn $279,000 a year to purchase a single family home in Vancouver, and that’s assuming a $150,000 down payment. Holy. Shit.
Fun fact: according to City of Vancouver staff, a family now needs to make $279,000 a year to afford a single-family home in East Vancouver.
Assuming you already have $150,000 for a down payment. pic.twitter.com/tLM0qIBsF1
— Justin McElroy (@j_mcelroy) November 28, 2017
Renting isn’t really a better option, and the outlook is equally as bleak. The data shows that renters are more than four times more likely to experience food insecurity than homeowners (see page 19 of this report from First Call for the numbers).
Anecdotally, renters with children are also routinely discriminated against. Under the current residential tenancy act, landlords are permitted to limit the number of occupants in a unit, regardless of their age. So a family of four, for example, may not be permitted to rent a two bedroom apartment with the intention of their two children sharing a room. Co-ops, long seen as an affordable option, have strange rules around families and follow a National Standard on Housing, which doesn’t allow siblings of the opposite gender to share a bedroom over the age of five.(Sidenote, this whole idea that each child needs their own bedroom is so incredibly North American and indulgent and wasteful). Average rent for a one bedroom apartment in this region is more than $1200 a month and there is a vacancy rate of LESS THAN ONE PERCENT.(Source).
If you are a lone parent on social assistance with two children, how far do you think your dollars are going?
Have you heard of the Welfare Food Challenge? This is a challenge from the group Raise the Rates, who advocate for a higher basic rate for a person receiving social assistance as a way of lifting people out of food insecurity. They assert “we can’t afford poverty”, and they’re right. People who receive social assistance are living in extreme poverty. The Welfare Food Challenge is designed for one person to have to live on what is calculated as the food budget for a person living on social assistance. In 2017, the welfare food challenge was $19 for the week, for an adult, never mind a growing and developing child. Many people who participate in the Welfare Food Challenge for only one week report that they feel unwell, tired, lethargic, weak, and unable to focus.
A solution proposed by some groups is a basic income guarantee (BIG).This idea is not without its own criticism, and indeed, groups such as Raise the Rates do not endorse a basic income guarantee model (for their thoughts on why, check out this blog post). However, Ontario is about to pilot it, and it’s been done in Manitoba before as well. Despite criticism that it will create work disincentives or result in cuts to other social programs, a basic income guarantee is considered by some researchers in food security to be “an effective strategy to reduce food insecurity.” The Northern Policy Institute, an evidence based research group has conducted research that directly links a BIG to improving outcomes for food insecure people.
Regardless of the solution, the statistics remain and they have to be changed and we can’t ignore them any longer. First Call has been tracking child and family poverty rates in BC for two full decades. According to their website their first provincial report card was published in 1996, and showed that one in five BC children were poor. “It is profoundly disappointing,” they note, “that, now, more than twenty years later, the data still shows one in five BC children live in poverty.”
Food Security Versus Food Sovereignty:
So, what about immediate hunger? Because advocating for a changes that will have lasting impacts is critical, but the reality is that it will take years to actually implement anything meaningful with the iceberg-paced monolith that is the provincial government. Even with a change in government these things still take ages to implement, and kids are hungry NOW. So, what can you do? Well, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank reports that one in five of their users are children. You want to help kids? Give the food bank straight up cash. They have three times the buying power and can buy exactly what they need to meet the needs of the community. If you can’t give a food bank straight up cash, there are high nutritional value foods you can donate that they often will request such as canned fish, dried lentils, canned chick peas, etc (see the Greater Vancouver Food Bank’s most wanted list here). But don’t just clean out your cupboards and give them all the shopping blunders you made.
A Share Table at a school is an old school way of addressing hunger and poverty. The Greater Vancouver Food Bank has moved away from similar old school ways, and is working to reject the traditional food bank role where it is simply a long lineup for a free bag of foods that are pre-selected and may not be right for the person receiving it. They are moving toward a next level that touches on access, food literacy, and food quality. This gives more dignity, choice, and power over food. This is how we change from Food Security, which you may have heard of, to Food Sovereignty.
Food security means accessible food for everyone. Food sovereignty also includes choice, culturally appropriate foods, foods that are produced in a sustainable way, and acknowledges that both producers and consumers play a role in a food system.
So yes, share the articles that point out how families are living in poverty. Advocate to help lift people out of poverty and not merely remain alive. Be generous in your donations to the food bank if you can. But please, don’t send a few leftover apples and granola bars to a table in the hall of a school and think you’re helping address hunger.
Resources for Further Education:
Here are three decent resources to get you started on learning more about hunger, food insecurity, and the links to poverty. I’m not an expert, and I’m still learning a lot, so keep your eyes open for more info and share that – not the Share Table.
PROOF: Food Insecurity Policy Research team working on food insecurity issues in Canada. Lots of Canadian-specific statistics here, and lots of reports you can dig into. This report, written by Dr. Valerie Tarasuk which links a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) to household food security is worth a read. Although it is Ontario-focused, the details are easy to see when viewed here in BC. If this is too much to take in, watch this video when Dr. Tarasuk
Food Secure Canada offers advocacy, information, and loads more on their website. They’re a “pan-Canadian alliance of organizations and individuals working together to advance food security and food sovereignty through three inter-locking goals: zero hunger, healthy and safe food, and sustainable food systems.”
New Westminster Community Food Action Committee: get involved in the community (for the New West readers) and Like the NWCFAC’s Facebook page and reach out to them to get involved. They post great resources on food in New West including frugal tips, notes about local restaurants, and food policy events. Plus the odd meme to give you a laugh.