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Maxed Out: The sickening reality of a society that doesn’t feed its own

'It’s an activity that makes me feel a bit ashamed of Canada and British Columbia and yes, even Whistler.'
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It was an eerie feeling walking around a local grocery store on Monday. For starters, it wasn’t crowded. Given the time of day, that was a bit surprising. But the out-of-body experience was more about the behaviour of the people there.

An unusual number of them had empty handbaskets. A few had none at all, as though they’d just popped in to pick up an item or two. But they too had nothing in their hands. At first, I thought maybe they were searching for something that was supply-chained into oblivion, as so many grocery items continue to be.

But then I noticed the blank, uncomprehending stares they seemed to share, to a greater or lesser degree. And given what they were staring at—chicken, soup, other canned goods—it seemed more like they exhibited the 500-metre stare of incomprehension rather than the shared experience of not finding what they were looking for.

The more I watched them, the more it dawned on me they’d been zombie-smacked by the prices they were seeing. Perhaps sticker shock or the saddening realization of how much more those items cost than they did a week or two or a month ago had immobilized them, short-circuiting the interface between their need and their budget.

A couple returned their baskets and walked out emptyhanded. Maybe they went to a different store. Maybe they wondered when the food bank opened. Maybe they went back home to doublecheck what they had in their cupboards. Maybe they decided to come back wearing baggier pants and coats to roll the dice and shop the five-finger discount. Beats me.

I picked up the few items I wanted, ignoring, or trying to ignore, their prices and left humming Jimmy Buffett’s “Peanut Butter Conspiracy,” an ancient song about down-and-outers shoplifting their way through the Mini Mart.

“We all knew if we ever got rich, we would pay the Mini Mart back.” Yeah, dream on.

We’ll never be as rich as the grocers. Don’t get me wrong and don’t get riled up. I don’t mean the folks who work there and manage these places. I don’t mean the locally owned grocery stores. I mean the Loblaws, Sobeys, Pattison empires, et. al. of the country. The ones that are publicly traded—which is pretty much all of them except those in the Jim Pattison empire—are enjoying record profits and near all-time high share prices. Their quarterly securities filings are stuffed like a holiday turkey with the kinds of numbers that make their C Suites and shareholders feel festive. And I’m sure no one at Mr. Pattison’s corporate offices are singing the blues this Christmas.

Not so their vacant-eyed, whipsawed shoppers. Buying food for their families has never been so gut-wrenching.

It’s hard to read a newspaper without seeing another story of another food bank in Anytown Canada posting record visits and pleading with people to help keep their shelves stocked. Whether it’s in large urban centres or our own ’hood, food banks are experiencing unprecedented demand.

Locally, Whistler’s food bank thought the kinds of numbers that exploded when the pandemic hit and everything shut down would taper off when things began to return to normal, whatever that is. Not so. More and more, their record clientele includes gainfully employed residents squeezed between how much they make and how much it costs to house and raise their families, keep them healthy and keep them fed.

Both Whistler and Pemberton food banks are experiencing the kind of growth in demand for their services that would bring smiles to the faces of all those C Suite execs at the big grocery companies. Except their kind of growing demand doesn’t pad the bottom line, boost their bonuses or enrich their shareholders. It just means they have to hustle harder, fundraise harder and worry more.

And so, in the next couple of days, I’ll do something I absolutely hate to do. It’s the most dreaded and rewarding thing I do every year and far too often more than once a year. It’s an activity that makes me feel a bit ashamed of Canada and British Columbia and yes, even Whistler. It’s something I’ve been doing for almost as long as I’ve been able, which is almost as long as they’ve existed in more or less their current form.

I’ll make a substantial—at least for me—donation to the food bank.

Beyond galling, it both infuriates and sickens me a rich country like ours relies on charity to help feed so many of its citizens. Institutionalized charity. Necessary charity now built into what we think of as our social safety net. Charity that was supposed to be temporary when the first food banks popped up four decades ago.

I’ll swallow my bile and donate. So should you. If you can. Why? Because charity begins at home and this is our home. The people who are needing and using the food bank are our neighbours. Our friends. The people who work and help keep our town stumbling along. The people who do all the jobs that keep this resort a resort instead of a ghost town. People we need to keep livin’ our own dream.

So let’s make this as easy as possible.

The food bank doesn’t need your canned goods, your pasta, the fruitcake haunting your pantry. Okay, they do. But mostly they need your money. It’s easier, cheaper and more efficient for them to purchase what they know they need.

So write them a cheque. Drop off a money order. Hell, give ‘em a briefcase full of cash. Donate your grocery store points to them. It’ll make you feel good.

Need more incentive? Are you fortunate enough to have non-registered investments? Donate shares of companies or units of mutual funds or ETFs. Whether your investments are losers or winners, you’ll win. You’ll get a charitable tax credit. The food bank will get the value of your securities. If you donate a winner, you avoid the capital gain you would have if you sold it and donated the money. If you dump a loser, you still get the capital loss you can use in the normal way. Sorry for the finance nerd dive, but this is the kind of win-win that appeals to portfolioed people.

Too hard? Au contraire. Head over to CanadaHelps.org. They’ll make it slam-dunk simple to donate securities to the Whistler Community Services Society’s food bank. Or any number of other Whistler charitable organizations.

Whatever your means and outlook on donating to charity, think local. And all things considered, isn’t supporting food for folks who need it about as fundamental as it gets?

Rhetorical question. 

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