Housing Affordability, Social Policy and Economic Conditions: Food Bank Users in the Greater Toronto Area, 1990-2000 *

Article excerpt

THE SOCIOLOGICAL RESEARCH ON POVERTY and social policy has been dominated by analyses of the "welfare state" and formal government programs, while less attention has been focussed on charitable organizations or non-profit sector suppliers such as food banks (Esping-Andersen, 1996; Hicks, 1999; Mitchell, 1991; Myles, 1996). The social welfare policy literature contains numerous studies that examine the impacts of a range of income security programs, particularly those that focus on social assistance (Bane and Ellwood, 1994; Danziger, 1989; Duncan et al., 1995; Kenworthy, 1999; Lewis, 2001; McFate et al., 1995; Sandefur and Cook, 1998; Vartanian and McNamara, 2000). In contrast, the role of the nonprofit sector or the "social economy" in helping to meet the subsistence needs of the poor has received much less scholarly attention (Quarter, 1992; cf. Cnaan and Handy, 2000). An area that has been largely neglected concerns food banks, which arguably have become an increasingly important support mechanism for those in need since the first such Canadian organization appeared in Edmonton in 1981 (Riches, 1986a). Any number of important sociological questions can be asked in regard to food banks, which were designed initially as an emergency response to help those without sufficient welfare and other cash income to meet their basic needs (Curtis and McClellan, 1995; Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, 1989). The current paper, however, focusses specifically on the impacts of certain structural conditions and social policy changes on the economic plight of low-income households who access food banks as an economic survival strategy.

Why study food bank users, rather than low-income or impoverished households in general? In the first place, food bank users consist almost entirely of low-income households at the far end of the economic wellbeing continuum. While not all low-income households rely upon food banks for supplemental support, the evidence reveals that the vast majority of food bank users and their families live in poverty by any reasonable standard. For destitute households in Canada, food banks appear to be a crucial source of support on a regular or monthly basis (Husbands, 1999a).

Furthermore, the evidence indicates that food banks have expanded precipitously over the past two decades. Throughout the 1980s, the number of food banks in Canada continued to grow and, by 1989, a total of 159 food banks existed in the ten provinces (Oderkirk, 1992). Food banks doubled in number over the next two years and continued to expand quite rapidly through the 1990s. The Canadian Association of Food Banks estimates that there are more than 600 food banks currently in operation, with well over 2,000 agencies distributing groceries and serving meals in every province and territory (Wilson with Steinman, 2000; Wilson with Tsoa, 2001).

Despite their phenomenal proliferation over the past two decades, food banks and those who access them have largely escaped theoretical and empirical research, apart from occasional political commentaries appearing in newspapers and periodicals (see, for example, Underwood, 1990). Even social workers, who work with impoverished or marginal populations on a regular basis, have virtually ignored food banks as a topic for scholarly discourse (see Tranter, 1997). Hence the current paper begins to address an important gap in the literature by focussing on the issues of housing affordability and the changing financial circumstances of low-income households as providing the context within which the economically marginal access food banks as a coping strategy. In addition, the longitudinal nature of the data permits an interesting comparison of social policy contexts and their possible impact upon the economic conditions of some of the more vulnerable segments in Canadian society.

Literature Review

Most food bank users live at the economic margins of Canadian society, even if employed in the paid labour market. …