They come from all nationalities and age groups: Gum-chewing teenagers, mothers with determination writ on their faces, men taking time off from their corporate concerns ... Binding this disparate group of people on a weekend morning in Toronto is a cause - and several boxes of food.
Meet the dedicated volunteers of the Daily Bread Food Bank, Toronto, Canada. A not-for-profit organization, the Daily Bread Food Bank (DBFB) distributes food to the hungry in Ontario province. Approximately 83,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area benefit from the over-190 food relief programmes and from the 160 member agencies of the organization.
Whenever DBFB launches a food drive, volunteers come together to the organization's centre to work their way through huge cartons of foodstuff deposited in front of their workbench by forklift drivers.
The volunteers then face long wooden benches stacked with spaghetti sauce bottles, rice noodles, packets of pasta, peanut butter, chicken soup cans and much more. They keep a watchful eye for items past their expiry date. Such products are kept aside as waste.
Wearing a blue sweater with jeans, Lisa Renner keeps an eye on her two daughters working alongside. "This is our way of doing something for the community. I think it is important for my kids to learn to help those who are hungry and poor."
DBFB collects the food from designated locations, such as popular grocery stores, religious institutions, and public schools. Cardboard cartons are kept at such locations and the general public drops off edible contributions into them. About 80 per cent of the food is received from food and consumer product industries. These edible items are often the kind that companies have, for instance, overstocked or mislabeled and that would have otherwise been dumped into landfills.
Throughout the year, the DBFB organizes food collection drives for the needy. Sometimes the response is overwhelming and the bank is able to meet its target. A case in point was Christmas, 2006. DBFB set up the target of collecting one million pounds of foodstuff. The spirit of the season was high and the organization was able to meet its target.
In one instance, a local school principal took up the challenge to eat live worms if the children collected 226 kg of food. The zealous kids, excited to take up the principal on her challenge, doubled the figure. The next day, all the newspapers carried images of a laughing principal eating squishy and crunchy worms in front of the whole school, amid shouts of "eeeoow".
"Christmas is usually a good time to collect food as people are more sensitive to sharing with those less fortunate and hungry," said Gail Nyberg, Executive Director, DBFB. The Christmas drive had a much better response than the Thanksgiving initiative, where the food bank was 10,0000 pounds short of its target.
Nyberg explains the reasons for the shortfall. "Although people are always ready to donate food, many factors work before they make that conscious effort of remembering to drop off the food." The weather could be one such factor. Recalls Nyberg, "It was still warm at Thanksgiving and Ontarians used the holidays to plan trips and enjoy the last few days of sun." As a result, few people took time out to donate to the food bank.
"It is a deplorable fact that although we are a prosperous nation, we still have people who go hungry many days a week because they don't have food," said Adam Spence, Executive Director, Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB), a not-for-profit network of food banks in the province of Ontario.
Statistics sum up this gloomy picture. According to the results of the 2006 Ontario Hunger Report, published by OAFB, 25 per cent of food banks reported a decrease in their ability to meet the needs of those they serve. One in five food banks reported not having enough food to supply to the needy.
Although the number of food banks has been increasing, people are still going hungry. According to the OAFB, currently there are an estimated 650 food banks in operation throughout Canada. Between 1989 and 2005, the number of people served by food banks each month doubled. In 2005, national food bank use reached a striking 823,856 people per month. Of these users, 40.7 per cent were children under 18 years.
"When children suffer because of lack of food they are less likely to want to go to school or have an active imagination. This is a social deficit that will affect the future success of our nation," said Spence. He added: "Poor families feed their children low cost, high calorie food (including sweetened drinks, processed meats and fried foods) leading to high rates of childhood obesity."
Besides children, single mothers, people with disabilities and new immigrants are some of the other groups relying on food banks. With the high cost of living, many working single mothers find it hard to make ends meet. A single person who cannot work and relies on government disability assistance gets $959 a month, an income far below the poverty line.
New immigrants, who cannot get jobs that match their qualifications, are the third group using food banks. In fact, to provide culturally appropriate food to new immigrants, DBFB started a multicultural collection drive last year, in which people were urged to donate food items such as 'atta' (whole-wheat flour), mustard oil, Jasmine rice, noodles, and soya sauce.
According to social workers, aside from those who access food banks, there is a bigger percentage that goes hungry as they are too proud to ask for food. "For some people it is very difficult to ask for help so we try and maintain a dignified atmosphere in our community distribution centers," said Nyberg. At the centers, people in need of food are asked to disclose their income, address and expenditures to community workers, who hand them supplies for up to three days.
Limited access to food has not decreased the reliance of people on food banks. While traditionally food banks have been considered a stopgap arrangement for the needy, recent research - conducted by DBFB and published in its 2006 report, 'Who's Hungry' - has shown that the duration of time for which food banks are used has, at times, stretched to 18 months. "This indicates that food banks are not an emergency measure but a necessity," said the report.
Spence said long-term solutions could reverse such trends. Tax benefits, social assistance for the disabled and single mothers, and increasing the minimum wage can be some of the obvious long-term solutions. "Nobody wants to go to food banks to get a carton of milk or soup for a week. It is necessary to bring policy changes to help the needy. These can only come through public demand for such changes," he said.
As a part of raising public awareness, OAFB has been trying to engage Ontarians in the hunger issue. "We are encouraging people to start awareness campaigns, to send letters to their members of the parliament asking for more help for the hungry and needy," said Spence.