It takes courage to come through its doors, but unrelenting inflation and an ever-increasing number of working-class families joining those deemed the ‘working poor’ has resulted in a staggering number of people summoning the courage to walk through the doors of the Good Neighbours Food Centre in Rosthern. It’s not that the staff are frightening, or that the building is in itself scary, but we are conditioned from childhood to believe that as adults we should be able to provide for ourselves and our families and if we can’t then we have then failed in our role as adults…walking through those doors is perceived by many as a confirmation of that. A 2019 study found that food bank use was one of the least common strategies used by food-insecure households to manage their resources when short on funds. These households were much more likely to ask for financial help from friends or family and to miss bill payments. This is an important fact to remember because while the number of clients visiting food banks seems incredibly large, it still does not fully represent the number of people and families struggling with food insecurity. The psychological stigma around having to ask for help to meet one’s basic needs is strong and GNFC strives to bring those who ‘have’ together with those who ‘have not’ in a safe and welcoming space. Their location on the primary business street puts them in the centre of the community fostering an awareness in the community that those accessing services at GNFC are their neighbours and are members of the community.
Since its inception, GNFC has had the support of the Town of Rosthern. A concrete expression of that support was the five-year tax exemption granted on the occasion of their Grand Opening in 2018. As they approach the end of this grace period it will be up to Rosthern Town Council how they will continue to support the GNFC. The non-profit sees over one thousand clients each month who live within a 50 km radius of Rosthern and partners with community organizations, individuals, and businesses to address food insecurity.
GNFC relies on donations and fundraising to carry out its mission. As members of Food Banks of Saskatchewan, they receive a portion of the donations that are received by the provincial association but also carry out fundraising activities such as the Market Day held on Friday, August 25, featuring mostly local vendors. Local businesses donated supplies for the barbecue GNFC operated and two local teenagers shared their musical talents to draw people to the market. Lauchie and Conall Harris who are both part of the 96th Highlander Pipe and Drum Corp. in Saskatoon have both been playing for about five years. Lauchie, on the bagpipes, and younger brother Conall on the drums played several numbers during the final hour of the Market Day entertaining not only those at the GNFC market but also those setting up for the weekly Farmers Market just down the street.
Last year, the Food Banks of Saskatchewan saw a 37 percent increase in usage, with 40 percent of the people who access food bank services being youth under 18. Alberta and Saskatchewan consistently have amongst the highest food bank use rates and Saskatchewan residents along with community leaders say that poverty is deepening in Saskatchewan pushing more families into food insecurity. Food insecurity is the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints. It is a serious public health problem, a marker of pervasive material deprivation, and a matter of public policy.
“People are just walking the line, just being able to make ends meet. These are your friends, your family, and your neighbours that are having to access food banks now to help more than ever,” said Michael Kincade, executive director of Food Banks Saskatchewan. Sixty percent of food-insecure households rely on wages and salaries as their main source of income. Families working low-wage jobs simply cannot earn enough to put decent food on the table. Addressing the inadequacy of wages in Canada is an important part of tackling food insecurity because most food-insecure households are in the workforce. Increasing the minimum wage is one way that provincial governments can reduce household food insecurity for low-income workers and their families. Research on food insecurity rates in the provinces has shown that a one-dollar increase in minimum wage was associated with 5% lower odds of experiencing food insecurity.
The fundamental purpose of food banks is to provide food on an emergency basis. They cannot alleviate intergenerational poverty or reduce the remedial impacts of poverty. At present, Canadian food banks and school-based food programs are providing the only solution to keeping struggling families fed including those ordinary people who “lose their jobs, get sick or can’t work, earn ‘working poor’ wages or face unexpected and sometimes overwhelming challenges in their life.” Food banks should not enable governments to look the other way and neglect the nutritional health, well-being, and poverty of Canadian citizens.
It is the government’s role to lead the response to these impacts. Social assistance programs have not kept up with Canada’s inflation rate. Year-over-year prices increased in Saskatchewan (as of January 2022) by 4.2 percent, with higher electricity prices contributing to the gains, and by examining social assistance rates over time, how much financial support people get over time has decreased because of the lack of indexation. The decisions governments make on policies like minimum wage, social assistance, income tax, child benefits, and other income supports directly determine households’ incomes and therefore, their food security. Social assistance programs vary among provinces and territories but being on social assistance anywhere in Canada poses an extremely high risk of food insecurity. The current design of social assistance programs leaves many households relying on them unable to make ends meet.
According to a research group, PROOF, public policies have left low-income Canadians, particularly working-age adults, and their families, behind for a long time. The persistence of high rates of food insecurity, research says, signals that there needs to be a dedicated effort to restructure federal, provincial, and territorial policies to target food insecurity reduction and ensure Canadians have enough money for basic needs. An examination of social policies across the provinces determined that increases in the minimum wage, increased welfare incomes, and lower income taxes for low-income households reduce the risk of food insecurity. The group concluded that when food-insecure households received additional income, they spent it in ways that improved their food security.
PROOF began in 2011 as a five-year research program, funded by a Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) Programmatic Grant to Tackle Health and Health Equity. It worked to identify viable and effective policy interventions to reduce household food insecurity in Canada, bringing together a group of multidisciplinary and international researchers from the University of Toronto, University of Illinois, University of Calgary, University of New Brunswick, Dalhousie University, and CAMH. It has continued since as a leading voice on food insecurity in Canada. (proof.utoronto.ca/)
Addressing household food insecurity as a problem of inadequate incomes has garnered little policy traction, despite there being decades of measurement and research. Through examination of transcripts of provincial and federal parliamentary discussions over the period of 1995–2012, it is evident that Canada’s elected officials have long recognized that household food insecurity is caused by inadequate income. However, they have remained focused on food banks and other food programs. Given the scale of the problem and the need to address income inadequacy, the continued focus by governments on funding food charities and other food-based initiatives as a response to food insecurity is ill-founded, states PROOF.
Canada has a long history of food charity that has led to a massive network of non-profit food providers. While food banks, mutual aid groups, and other service organizations continue to do their best to help those in need, they also recognize that they cannot solve food insecurity. As the first CEO of Good Neighbours Food Centre, Wilmer Froese, said in his book, “Unfortunately, disparity between the rich and poor seems to be widening, and at the present time there seems to be little indication that this will change any time soon. Our country is one of the richest nations on earth, and yet there are many people living below the poverty line.”
By Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Aug 31, 2023