By: Drew Silverthorn, Assistant Food Bank Coordinator
The holidays are an exceptionally magical time for charities. Not only are people feeling especially generous with their loved ones, but many also find time to pause and reflect during the capitalist firestorm of Black Friday and mounting credit card debt to give back to those in need. Across the GTA and even the country it’s remarkable to see the amount of donations charities rake in. However, with recent criticisms blasted at the Salvation Army for its anti-LGBT stance, it’s slowly becoming clearer that donations can foster charity’s darker side.
This year the Community Food Room saw unprecedented donation levels consisting of mostly non-perishable food items. Up until the last day before the winter break our staff was scurrying around campus collecting the donated bounty. It was truly a remarkable and humbling experience to witness such generosity on behalf of the Ryerson community.
As we began the process of unpacking, sorting, and repacking the donations for storage I started to notice something. Many of the donations had been purchased. Evidence of this included receipts left in the bags or certain grocery brands in matching retailer plastic bags such as canned Great Value green beans in a Wal-Mart bag. I was pleased to see this as often food banks receive donors’ “hazardous waste”: food that donors deemed unfit for themselves or their families yet still suitable enough for those struggling with poverty. While the gesture is appreciated, these donations infuriate me to no end. Such donations reinforce class divisions by sending a clear message that quality food (fresh, healthy, sustainability produced, etc.) is reserved for only those who can afford it.
The majority of donations we receive are what researchers call “hyperpalatable foods”: foods high in fat, sugar, and salt (Avena, Rada, & Hoebel, 2008). Some research has suggested that increased levels of fat, sugar, and salt in prepared foods have promoted binge-eating and food addiction as modern disorders (Meule, 2011). I’ve noticed this in our service users. Cookies, crackers, sugar cereals, granola bars, and chips never stay on the shelf. We rarely run out of rice, pasta, canned fish, and root vegetables.
I want to take a step back and make it clear that I understand food banks must rely on the generosity of donors and that we cannot fall into a trap of policing who can donate what. As a food bank coordinator I will be the first to say that often service users do not want healthy food. No matter how much ground the modern health movement has made, many people still rely on convenience foods that require limited storage, time, tools and equipment, and skill to prepare. These foods are especially appealing to students who have severe time restraints.
Furthermore, the definition of what constitutes as “healthy” donations is subject to cultural, regional, economical, educational, and personal perspectives. As a white and poor rural farmer, my grandmother believed that not being hungry meant being healthy. Excess calories weren’t a concern because excess simply didn’t exist. Much of the world (including parts of Canada) still live like this today.
Amongst our fat, sugar, and salt craving service users there has been a real demand for less adulterated foods. During one of our delivery days from our local food bank redistribution center (our busiest day), the staff set up a chart where service users could tell us how to improve our programs. Many left comments asking for more fresh fruits and vegetables, a more steady variety of canned beans, more meat, milk alternatives, and organic products. Of course, some were completely satisfied with our mostly prepared convenience foods selection. What really stood out, however, was how diverse our service users’ tastes, desires, and eating habits were.
How does this all connect back to donations? Like mentioned previously, food banks rely on donations. Without donations we cannot do our work. As such, we are at the mercy of our donors when it comes to the variety of food we have access to. During the unpacking of our holiday loot I would sometimes find a package of organic quinoa, steal cut oats, natural peanut butter, gluten-free pasta, or almond milk and it would make me pause for a moment and smile. I would think to myself, “I wish I knew who donated this. I’d like to thank them for truly understanding what food security means.” What saddens and frustrates me is that those who bought their donations purchased ones that were cheap and required little thought. We are bursting with Kraft Dinner and yet we are hard pressed to receive a bag of brown rice.
So, what’s the solution? Here are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind the next time you decide to donate.
1. If you’re cleaning out your cupboards and are planning to donate what you don’t want STOP and think: why am I donating this? If you’re donating the item(s) because they’re not up to your standards because of health reasons then reconsider your donation.
The alternative should not be throwing it out. The alternative should be you bought it so you should eat it!
2. If you’re purchasing items to donate, call the food bank you’re planning to donate to and ask them what they’re in need of.
Healthy items that are always in demand include natural peanut butter, nuts, pasta (white/whole wheat/whole grain), rice (white/brown), milk alternatives, and canned beans.
3. Don’t feel the need to go overboard if it’s out of your budget. Not everyone can afford to donate a $10 bag of quinoa. However, try going for quality and quantity (ie brown rice is much cheaper than quinoa).
4. The next time you host a party ask your guests to bring some goods to donate to the food bank. It’s a great opportunity for collecting donations without busting your own budget.
Avena, Hoebel, Rada, P. (2007). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioural and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Behavioural Review, 32(1), 20-39.
Meule. (2011). How prevalent is “food addiction”?. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 61(2)