Food Banks and Food Security: Welfare Reform, Human Rights and Social Policy. Lessons from Canada?



In the past twenty years food banks have established themselves as one of the fastest–growing charitable industries in first world societies. As institutionalized centres or clearing houses for the redistribution of donated and surplus food they have emerged as a key frontline response to the growing problem of food poverty and inequality. As welfare states have been restructured and cut back and basic entitlements have been denied, food banks have become secondary extensions of weakened social safety nets. This paper explores the growth of food banking in Canada and analyses its role in terms of advancing the human right to food, its effectiveness in achieving food security and the extent to which it contributes to, and/or counters the increasing emphasis by governments on welfare reform policies informed by neo–conservative ideology. Food banks are examined from the perspective of their origins and purposes, institutionalization, usage, food distributed and effectiveness. The rise of food banks in Canada is concrete evidence both of the breakdown of the social safety net and the commodification of social assistance. As such, they undermine the state’s obligation, as ratified in international conventions, to respect, protect and fulfil the human right to food. They enable governments to look the other way and neglect food poverty and nutritional health and well–being. A possible future role for food banks in countries where they are already established lies in public education and advocacy, but their institutionalization makes this seem an unlikely course. In countries where they are in their infancy, the question of whether to support their development should be a matter of urgent public debate.