Let’s rethink charity to feed hungry bellies

On a soggy, chill Vancouver night 13 years ago, I carefully threaded my way through a confusion of beat up bicycles and grocery carts piled high with scavenged cast-offs.


by Jonathan Bird

On a soggy, chill Vancouver night 13 years ago, I carefully threaded my way through a confusion of beat up bicycles and grocery carts piled high with scavenged cast-offs and squeezed into the basement hallway of a small inner city church.

The long corridor was impassably full of people standing and sitting in puddles that had dripped from their clothing as they waited a turn to get a free hot dinner up in the hall, which sat 100 people at a time. I was the co-ordinator of this weekly charity meal. Even through my fogged glasses, nothing could be clearer to me: this was degrading.

We were doing more harm than good. Our best intentions had become victim of their own success. We had structured the program to be an alternative to typical soup kitchens. Now, a community event that had been beautifully human was too popular, too needed, to be sustainable. We were critically short on volunteers, money, space. Above all, we were short on time to spend with people we’d come to think of as friends.

That night I began a journey that continues to this day. I set out to find ways to connect the ethic of mutuality that informed our charitable impulse with a more systemic approach to the root causes of hunger and isolation that are driving ever more people to rely on the charitable impulses of others.

We need to link food charity to food justice, but specifically in a manner that underscores aspirations and desires common to the rich and poor alike: the Right to Food can organically be fulfilled as everyone is empowered to take greater responsibility in securing their own food.

I was delighted to discover I wasn’t alone on my journey. For instance, burgeoning consumer interest in healthy food is merging on one hand with a resurgence of “urban homesteading” crafts like canning and foraging and backyard chicken pens. As well, there are social enterprises that employ marginalized people in organic farms (on vacant city lots) selling to fashionable restaurants or in catering operations that serve lunch to downtown businesses and dinner to the homeless.

Municipalities wanting to promote environmental sustainability and neighbourliness are finding allies and methods among academics and practitioners who are pointing out the pitfalls of traditional charity versus, say, the benefits of community kitchens designed into social housing complexes or market gardens cultivated on elementary school grounds.

These convergences began to achieve critical mass eight to 10 years ago. They can be summed up in the concepts of “food security” and “food sovereignty.”

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization provides the most widely used definition of food security: it “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

Food security recognizes the common threat of malnutrition faced by people as diverse as an aboriginal street youth, an elderly widow living far from a supermarket, a single mother who must decide whether to pay the rent or buy groceries, and a new immigrant completely unfamiliar with North American produce or unsure if any food products meet the dietary laws of her religion.

Food security encompasses the challenges of welfare policy, sketchy winter supply lines, rapidly rising costs of production and transportation, climate change, pestilence, war, natural catastrophes, conversion of cropland, soil degradation due to over-intensive cultivation and irrigation, and the loss of 75 per cent of the world’s diverse heritage seed stock to the demands of industrial farming. I could go on. Year by year, food insecurity is becoming more real for all of us.

Food sovereignty emphasizes that food security is impossible without attention to justice. Hear the First Nations Health Council: “‘Food sovereignty’ is the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies, which are ecologically, socially, spiritually, economically, and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances. ‘Indigenous food sovereignty’ also includes the elements of sacredness and self-determination. As indigenous people we understand that food is a gift and that we have a sacred responsibility to nurture healthy, interdependent relationships with the land, water, plants, and animals that provide us food.”

Here justice is rooted in gratitude and yields loving concern for all our relations. This is the original meaning of “charity,” Latin caritas: love for all.

The threats to our food security are multiplying. So is the number of people accessing charitable food programs. We need more charity, not less. What we need most of all is better charity.

Jonathan Bird is a lead partner at Planted: A Community Food Network, based in Vancouver. He will be in Whitehorse during Poverty and Homelessness Action Week, which runs from Oct. 16 to 22. Join the Yukon Anti-PovertyCoalition for his public talk: Rooted: Cultivating a Resilient Community on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Westmark Whitehorse.