Food banks are good because they feed hungry people. Corporations that fund food banks are good because they help feed hungry people. Right?
Wrong. The opposite is actually the case. Food banks prevent actions to address hunger and the corporations that fund food banks are usually the ones creating hunger in the first place.
Like in the USA, food banks have become a common feature of Canadian life. We are told that they provide relief to the hungry. But actually, they do the opposite.
Food banks only reach a small percentage of those who are unable to meet their food needs (the technical term is food insecurity). The quality and quantity of food supplied by food banks are inadequate to maintain health.
The people who use food banks experience stigma. They feel degraded because they are reduced to begging. The people running food banks gather acclaim and good salaries.
Food banks delude the public into thinking food insecurity and hunger are being managed. Food banks allow governing authorities off the hook. Instead of passing laws and regulations and developing policies to reduce poverty and low wages, governments contribute funding to food banks.
Even worse, our study of the Canadian scene found that many of the corporations that contribute to food banks have taken over their direction by becoming the majority of members of their boards of directors. These corporations are usually the ones whose employment practices cause food insecurity and hunger.
For example, The Chair of the Board of Directors of Canada’s largest food bank organization, Food Banks Canada, is a vice president of Walmart Canada, a company whose low wages and anti-union activities cause food insecurity and hunger.
We found that the boards of directors of other major food banks and food diversion schemes that see corporations donating excess food to food banks are also dominated by members coming from the corporate sector.
Not surprisingly, we found that statements and reports from these food banks say little about low wages and how they cause food insecurity and hunger. They say nothing about the benefits of unionization. Fisher found the same thing in the USA.
Food banks say nothing about how higher taxes on very profitable corporations would help fund programs that, by reducing poverty, would reduce food insecurity and hunger.
But then, such actions would cut into the profits of the corporations that control these food banks and food diversion schemes.
Almost everybody is therefore happy with this set-up. The food banks stay in business. Corporations are praised instead of condemned for their food insecurity and hunger-producing labour practices. Governments are let off the hook.
The only ones unhappy are those unable to access food in a manner that does not strip them of dignity and respect. Their misery warns other workers not to complain about wages and working conditions.
How does all of this happen? Karl Marx wrote that those who control the making and distribution of economic resources will do anything to increase their profits.
He also wrote that they will assure that government authorities will go along with these practices.
Marx said that through their power these controllers create stories that justify all of this. In other words, food banks are good. Corporations that direct food banks are good.
And all of this makes us complicit. Marx’s colleague Friedrich Engels, even at the tender age of 24 years, saw through all this. What he wrote in 1845 clearly applies today:
The English bourgeoisie is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter, makes a bargain with the poor, saying: ‘If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery’.
It’s time to get the foxes out of the hen house. Then maybe we can do something to reduce food insecurity and hunger.
Dennis Raphael is a professor of health policy and management at York University in Toronto, Canada.
To read more, see: Azadian, A., Masciangelo, M. C., Mendly-Zambo, Z., Taman, A., & Raphael, D. Corporate and business domination of food banks and food diversion schemes in Canada.Capital & Class 2022; Mendly-Zambo, Z., Raphael, D., & Taman, A. Take the money and run: how food banks became complicit with Walmart Canada’s hunger producing employment practices. Critical Public Health 2021.
Image: Food bank at the Cornerstone Community Centre in Newcastle-under-Lyme via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).