More Than Food Banks

We have to stop looking at the food bank as a place that keeps the destitute alive — keeps them out of sight over there, so we can feel good about ourselves over here. We have to stop looking at food bank recipients as society’s lost souls, cast aside with little left to contribute to society like we do.

Some of them have something to teach us. They’re not just people hiding their faces in embarrassment, only there because they’re more desperate than we are. They’re a layer of our community who’ve been forced to look reality in the face like we comfortable consumers have never dared to do.

Out of the ashes of their misfortune, they’re the raw materials to build a true community that we — in our comfort — have lost the imagination to seek.  And some of the food bank organizations have picked up on that vision — taken the lead — turning the soup kitchen into a social phenomenon that might just shake us out of our entitled complacency.

In my own observations, I’ve often lamented how our culture of pathological individualism has turned us into an anti-community, of self-indulgent consumers circling around each other in pursuit of advantage. I’ve wondered how to build a real community, of people living the natural human instinct to look after each other. It’s a hostile environment to be pursuing that particular dream.

I’ve looked to the church — not the pseudo-church that preaches a rampant individualism that would make Christ queasy. But the real church that points out how Christ preferred to hang out with the food bank people — because they’re the ones who have learned humility. That’s one good place to look for the meaning and practice of community. They’ve always held that giving out food is not enough — we have to build respectful relationships.

But we have many partners in the secular world, indeed leaders. Food banks and soup kitchens are a case in point. I was reminded by a recent article in Huffington Post — about Nick Saul, Exec. Director of Community Food Centers Canada in Toronto.

He spoke of his food bank, saying “Food is such a powerful way to connect with people. So we completely transformed into a community centre where food was at the heart of it, and people ate well and they met their neighbors and they felt less isolated and they connected to whatever entitlements they deserved.”

They built community kitchens and gardens, installed outdoor bake ovens, offered healthy drop-in meals and educational programs, and held affordable farmers’ markets. And the people they served were right in there — contributing to the work, listening to each other’s troubles, supporting each other in all kinds of ways, sharing what little they had, and generally showing what a community is really like — showing how to be a family.

Locally, I’ve seen evidence of the same spirit. I’ve also heard stories of people standing tall, standing up for themselves and others, standing up for services and justice. Not all of them of course, sometimes not many. Too many of them are too beaten down. But it’s there, a community spirit taking shape.

That’s the new kind of food bank being born, and spreading. Those are the new kind of people — more and more of them — adapting to adversity and rediscovering their self-worth — turning themselves into community enablers — more than we comfortable spoiled brats will likely ever get up the insight to do.

So we community-challenged folks might soon have to start looking up to them.



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