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Calgary Food Bank says Ontario charity’s cash-card model won’t work here

The town of Woodstock, ON used to have a food bank.

It took up the better part of a church basement to store all the non-perishables that were donated throughout the year. It operated in much the same way as the over 550 food banks across Canada do.

But then, 10 years ago, Operation Sharing, the multi-faith group responsible for the food bank decided to try something different

John Klein Geltink, vice chair of the board with Operation Sharing, said it took a bit of convincing at first to try their new idea.

“We managed to get our board of directors on board and we managed to contact a number of the grocers in the area, and got a bunch of them to buy into the concept,” said Klein Geltink. “It was kind of an unorthodox way of dealing with it.”

The program is now called Food for Friends. Instead of receiving a food hamper, clients receive a card worth $30 to $70 which they present at the till of the participating grocery stores once they’re done shopping.

“It’s changing the whole perspective of how we help people in a dignified way that still involves them making decisions about the type of foods they like,” he said.

Working solely with cash means they no longer have the hassle of dealing with handling and sorting food donations. The operation is run out of one small space. Anyone is welcome to drop in, chat, use some public-access computers and have a cup of coffee.

Klein Geltink said they had to get the community on board as well. For years they had taken part in the usual food collection drives, and residents had to be convinced that they should hold on to those cans of soup collecting dust in the pantry.

For this challenge, they also partnered with local grocery stores, getting them to ask customers to donate 25 cents after every purchase.

“The reason we do 25 cents – it seems like almost nothing ­– but even those that use the food cards feel great about helping out – and they can do it with 25 cents.”

The program worked so well that Operation Sharing launched a similar program allowing parents of students to buy the school supplies they need each fall, instead of accepting donated knapsacks full of supplies.

Klein Geltink said there has been interest in Operation Sharing’s model. There was an attempt in Red Deer to start a similar program, and he’s aware of a town in New Brunswick that also moved away from the traditional food bank model as well.

He said empowering people to make their own food choices helps restore their dignity.

“There’s a paternalistic attitude to those who are less fortunate in our communities and we’re just trying to break down those barriers in our community and say well, that’s not really true.”

But what works in small town Ontario won’t necessarily work in Calgary, according to Calgary Food Bank’s CEO James McAra.

“Reducing the load of transporting and sorting food and all that other kind of stuff – well if you have a small community where you know everybody and you’ve got a grocery store and that’s what you’re dealing with, that may work really well in that community,” he said.

He said in the six or seven of the big Canadian cities, where 80 per cent of the food comes from the food industry, sorting is required. He said the Calgary Food bank has the ability to be a part of the food safety system.

“The complexity as you grow larger in the cities starts to create the need – demand the need – for certain food safety pieces,” said McAra.

He said that through deals with food wholesalers, they are able to buy and receive donations of large quantities of food – especially perishables – at a lower cost, and then distribute those efficiently to people who need it.

“We’re buying our eggs as low as they can go. We’re buying our milk as low as it can go, even though it’s in a market situation.”

The Calgary Food Bank still says cash is the most efficient way to support them because they’re able to leverage a dollar more than the average buyer, and also because having cash allows them to optimize and run the system efficiently.

Unlike Woodstock, the food bank is set up to accept donations of food, money, or volunteer time.

“The funds help us maintain that performance,” he said.

It’s a big system to maintain. The food bank has a 60,000 square foot warehouse, 45 full time staff, and 168 volunteers working every day.

Staff is one of the food bank’s biggest expenses. Of its $3.78 million in operating costs for the 2016-17 financial year, $2.9 million went to staff salaries and benefits.

In that fiscal year, the food bank was able to receive and redistribute 14.7 million pounds of food (valued at $1.81 per pound) in 90,864 hampers.

Paul Hughes, the founder of Grow Calgary and a local food activist, thinks the Woodstock model is the way to go, even here in Calgary.

He says we already have food warehouses in every corner of the city – they’re called grocery stores.

“What it does is that it brings back the food dignity,” said Hughes. “We’ve already got a very efficient food system that feeds 99 per cent of us, if not more.”

Dr. Lynn McIntyre, professor emerita with the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary, said she admires the Calgary Food Bank because the operators actually believe they should be out of business, but she also sees potential in the Woodstock model.

“I’ve seen it with my own eyes – the whole thing is run out of a desk in a basement with little cards that just get activated for varying amounts,” she said.

McIntyre has long been studying food insecurity and said it comes down to one problem – money.

“It’s not because of bingo, not because of financial mismanagement – it’s because people don’t have enough money to live within their basic means,” she said.

The answer to this problem, she says, is pretty simple. Giving people enough money to live on, with no strings attached, can actually be cheaper than the social programs currently in place. This idea of a basic income is gaining momentum among those combating poverty.

“We know that when you give people money, they buy food. They buy good food for their children and then the adults take what’s left.”

She said numerous studies, including the 2005 “Ralph Bucks” program here in Alberta have shown this. In that case, researchers found food bank usage temporarily dropped when the cheques went out.

McIntyre had high hopes for Ontario’s now-cancelled basic income program, but she believes basic income is the best way forward to deal with poverty.

“Building a better food bank is not the answer to food insecurity,” she said. “Income is the answer. I’m so happy that the people of Woodstock got that.”