The Day after Christmas: Shortcomings in the Charity Food Model in the DTES

by Carol White

Daring to criticize the charity food model may be seen by some as Grinch-like.  It is hard not to come off sounding like a Scrooge or even worse anti-Canadian.  Canadians have a long tradition of being exceptional at demonstrating charity in times of crisis.  We have seen this most recently with our response to the plight of Syrian refugees.

Four years ago I started working at the DTES Neighbourhood House.  Prior to this I had worked in the world of other Neighbourhood Houses and charities so was not unfamiliar with the great emphasis placed seasonal giving.  Many people defer their giving until this traditional time and organizations recognize this as a strategic time to get out their message.  Canadians have a long tradition of giving food hampers and seasonal meals in December.  The NH is no exception.  Our seasonal fundraising drive is anchored by the sales of a seasonal Gift Basket made up of locally sourced social enterprise goods along with products and produce from local east side suppliers.

Schools and Neighbourhood Houses often gear up for these events weeks in advance.  What is surprising to discover however is that in the DTES there is a stark contrast between the amazing abundance of free turkey dinners available and the relative famine in the following weeks.  These seasonal feasts seem to be planned with little foresight as to how people are to manage in mid-January when people are often without any food.  To exacerbate this even more, Provincial assistance cheques are issued during the week of December 20th when meals are plentiful but not again until the January 20th.  This means there is a long cold 5 weeks with no funds and no food for many.  In the lead up to Christmas the Potluck Society publishes a handy list of holiday meals for the community.   In some venues there are three full turkey meals per day in the week leading up to Christmas Eve but on Christmas day itself very few are offered.  DTES organizations have proven time and again that we work well together supporting food and health as with Homeground, the Alley Health Fair and the Family Fair.  However because most non-profits remain completely dependent on those who contribute both time and money and when these contributions are focused in the weeks leading up to Christmas our ability to manage and provide for in the post-holiday slump is very limited.

I am also mindful that when much of Christmas giving involves long lineups, offers little or no choice of food or when it will be available over a sustained period of time the charity model reveals its flaws.  At the DTESNH, while we offer programs to scale with meal options that include fresh organic foods we too are embedded in the same model.  Advocating for better food options, providing community kitchens and bringing awareness about food security, the environment and social justice are small steps toward changing the model as well as providing a winter feast timed for mid-January to fill that big gap.

According to the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition website of the 5 things we should know about poverty in BC two stand out.  First, BC rates as “one of the most generous provinces in Canada when comparing the average percentage of income we donate to charity. “  This seems especially true when we witness international crisis.  Second, the cost of poverty in BC is about 9 billion a year when considering health care and criminal justice costs and loss of productivity.  The cost of a poverty reduction strategy? Three billion, and how should we spend this 3 billion?  I will leave the reader with these words from the BC Poverty Reduction Website:

“Poverty is an underlying social determinant of ill health, so all of the other objectives will have a direct impact on improving the health of low-income people. That said, government provision of essential health services and community health care — home care, home support, assisted living, long-term care, and community mental health services –– should be enhanced and expanded. These services are particularly important to lower-income seniors (mainly women) and to people with physical and mental disabilities, and the people who provide these services are primarily low-wage women (a majority of whom are recent immigrants).

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