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February 8, 2011
WINNIPEG, MB, Feb. 8, 2011/ Troy Media/ – Winnipeg Harvest, a non-profit, community-based organization whose goal is to eliminate the need for food banks, recently announced that it is short about $2 million to complete a $6.5 million expansion its facilities.
According to David Northcott, its executive director, the expansion is essential to deal with the growing use of food banks in Winnipeg and parts of rural Manitoba.
Northcott said Winnipeg Harvest serves 48,000 Winnipeggers every month, as well as 10,000 rural Manitobans.
Need for food banks not disputed
While no one disputes the essential need for food banks for families in need, whether growing poverty and food bank usage are necessarily linked is open to debate.
Northcott says there has been a 21 per cent jump in food bank usage in Manitoba over the past year. A sobering thought, to be sure, especially if there are children involved. Manitoba has been known for its child poverty, especially among the aboriginal community, a sad reality that should be quickly addressed.
But Rick August, well known for helping design and implement several provincial and national social programs, including the National Child Benefit, wrote a commentary for Troy Media last November that looked at the link between poverty and food bank usage.
He wrote that Food Banks Canada’s annual Hunger Count showed food bank usage was indeed increasing. However, he also pointed to data that indicated overall poverty rates in Canada, including on the Prairies, were going down. In Canada, poverty rates fell to 9.4 per cent in 2008 from 14.8 per cent in 1993. This is good news that should be celebrated.
What should not be condoned is the inclination, by some, to conclude that higher food bank usage is necessarily evidence of growing poverty.
As August points out, food banks do not necessarily screen based on income. As the groceries are offered at no cost, there is a natural incentive for people – not necessarily “poor” – to access the services. Of course, the increased migration of First Nations from rural reserves to urban centres can also explain the higher usage rates, as they adjust to the city and find employment. Perhaps rates will go down as these families’ access jobs.
A case for food banks
August also argued that many food banks offer educational and employment services which widen their appeal to more people, and which could also be affecting utilization rates. In other words, there are many reasons – other than growing poverty – that could explain the growing rates of usage. August also clearly makes the case in his commentary for the need for food banks, stressing both the better nutrition available and lower food costs for low income people which make it easier for them to deal with housing costs.
But while organizations such as Winnipeg Harvest are tremendously important to all of Manitoba, we should not allow social commentators and advocates of a permanent poverty industry to hijack the debate by insisting higher use means more poverty.
Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.