Re-thinking food banks 

Whistler's food bank already a healthy stop

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Canada's first food bank opened its doors in Edmonton in 1981.

A federal government report in the late 1980s called food banks a "temporary emergency response" as cuts were being made to public spending. Now there are more than 800 food banks across our fair nation, giving lie to any remaining delusions they are temporary.

In terms of numbers, Whistler's food bank looks like this: This year, to the end of September, it has served nearly 1,700 adults and children. (This doesn't necessarily mean 1,700 different individuals, rather it's the number of visits. So if one person uses the food bank three times in that period, he or she will be counted three times.) In 2012, the food bank served just over 2,500 people during the entire year.

Unlike most other food banks, where the majority of clients are long term due to health, addiction issues or other circumstances, most people using Whistler's food bank do so only one to five times in a 12-month period because they're primarily young, single adults who simply need some help through a tough period.

Still, many long-term clients and families do use the food bank, says Sara Jennings, Whistler Community Services Society's coordinator for the food bank, community kitchens and greenhouses. Up to the end of September this year, 237 children were served.

As for the amount of food donated in 2013 to Whistler's food bank, as of the end of August that added up to a whopping 18,300 pounds.

While those are the numbers, they're only the bones beneath the main reason I recently phoned Sara, which was to ask her about ideas re-examining the traditional food bank model as outlined in Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis's new book, The Stop, all about Toronto's food bank of the same name.

A community organizer and activist who's been honoured with a Jane Jacobs Prize and the Queen's Jubilee Medal, Nick Saul became executive director of The Stop in 1998, then a "cramped food bank." By the time he stepped down last year to become the president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, he'd turned The Stop into "a thriving, internationally respected Community Food Centre" — a new model for delivering good, healthy food to people who need it.

Since its transformation, The Stop has drawn rave reviews from its clients and people familiar with food banks as well as the likes of culture creators such as Naomi Klein, Jamie Oliver and Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved.

According to an article in The Guardian published at the U.K. release of the book, The Stop's paradigm shift went like this: As he worked there, Saul realized that the traditional food-banking model The Stop, and virtually every food bank in Canada operated under, could alleviate hunger, albeit for only for a short time and via transactions he describes as silent and humiliating, along with food that was often of dubious quality. But the model did little to build clients' dignity or self-esteem, get them working and help them break out of poverty.

So Saul made a conscious decision that The Stop had to get "aspirational."

"Out go the bruised vegetables and the 'any-food-is-better-than-no-food-for-the-poor' ethos," writes Patrick Butler in The Guardian article. "They (The Stop) take over a huge, abandoned, tram repair shed, set up a garden and kitchens, and hold farmers' markets, cookery courses and after school programs. Local food bank clients start to volunteer. The post-food-bank model, (Saul) decides, has to be based on relationships, not transactions."

None of these ideas are new to Sara and the Whistler food bank. In fact, when she visited The Stop four or five years ago, right after she started working at the food bank, she was happy to learn that many of the ideas used at The Stop were already keystones at Whistler.

"Whistler Community Services has been really fortunate in that we have always seen the fact that the food bank is often a first entry point for people, but it's not necessarily going to get them out of the situation they're in and help them improve their situation," Sara says.

"Our main resource for that has always been our outreach workers."

Besides being treated with dignity and respect, every person who comes to Whistler's food bank is told about available services. They don't have to meet with an outreach worker but the option is there, closer than ever at the food bank's new location in Spring Creek, where the outreach offices are literally down the hall. There, clients can access assistance including counselling, training, working on their resumes, and exploring job opportunities.

When it comes to providing good healthy food, the "bruised veggie, anything will do" model has never existed. The harvest garden right outside Whistler's food bank door three seasons of the year encourages "growing your own," plus 10 per cent of each community greenhouse plot goes to the food bank. In summer more produce comes from the farmers' market; in winter fresh produce is ordered in.

As well, Whistler Community Services' community kitchens are up and running again after a hiatus, offering cooking classes on how to cook tasty, healthy, low-budget meals — a useful tool for young people away from home for the first time who don't know how to cook, and a great way to meet people. One recent session demonstrated a delicious five-bean salad using one of my favourite ingredients, dried beans, as well as a chocolate mousse for a fraction of the cost it would be at a store or deli.

"So we definitely err on the side of healthy eating," says Sara.

Of course, some of the ideas from The Stop don't fit all applications. For instance, The Stop's work model, where many clients work right in the food centre itself, isn't feasible at Whistler since most clients already work, even if they are under-employed, or just need short-term help.

Still, as Community Food Centres Canada rolls out Nick Saul's ideas across the nation to better assist the 900,000 Canadians who turn to them each year, it's good to know Whistler's own local food bank is already a leader in best practices.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who donates to her local food bank.

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