Beyond Food Banks

An Oregon Food Bank Truck showing a slogan: We're driving hunger out of Oregon
Oregon Food Bank photo by Walmart is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Pay the rent or feed the kids” articulates an extreme choice. Yet it is one that people with housing costs that eat more 30% of their income face all the time. It’s one of the reasons that grocery stores have bins to collect food donations from shoppers. Individual donations help shoppers to feel they are helping. Others have tackled the issue on a larger scale. This post looks at two organizations that improve access to affordable, healthy food, using different approaches.

The Company Shop Group is a business that began as a strategy to redistribute surplus food, taking unsold stock off the hands of businesses. Some of the stock is sold through Community Shops, which are located in five (soon to be six) neighbourhoods where most residents have very low incomes. The rest of the stock is sold through 11 Company Shops. Company Shops sell to select employee groups, including people working in the armed forces, police, fire, the national health service and the food manufacturing and distributing sector. Proceeds of sales from Company and Community shops are invested in services in Community shop neighbourhoods. Read more about the newest Community Shop in the Liverpool: New award-winning social supermarket for Liverpool’s Walton Road

Community Food Centres Canada supports community groups interested in improving food security and strengthening community connections. The Community Food Centre model was developed and piloted at one centre before expanding. Today there are 13 across the country. Community Food Centres provide community meals, volunteer opportunities, programs that support kids to cook and grow plants, community gardens and other strategies to boost local food production and advocate for change. Some community food centre participants share their experiences here: “It’s given me a new sense of purpose.”

On reading these examples, one might ask “how far is far enough?” when it comes to supporting people who have limited incomes and struggle to meet basic needs. Belinda Yuen, writing about about Singapore’s housing programs, describes two schools of thought about lifting people out of poverty.1 One focuses primarily on individual initiative. The second adds the element of redistribution. Yuen also demonstrates the policy and program choices that derive from these schools of thought.

The first view relies largely on private sector business activity to lift people out of poverty. A micro loan to an individual would be consistent with this view. The loan might allow a borrower to purchase additional supplies and sell more product and increase their income. With more income, the loan recipient can purchase better housing, more food, etc.

The second view considers how a whole community’s wealth is distributed to support its population, spending public funds to raise the standard of living for people with low incomes. Her example is a comprehensive construction program that invests public funds in meeting the basic need for housing. By putting public resources to housing supply, there is both a steady source of employment and a housing program that includes permanently affordable for people with very low incomes.

Food donations, food banks, the Shop Company Group and Community Food Centres have all come into being because people are struggling to meet basic needs. In terms of Yuen’s ideas, each one is an initiative that redistributes wealth. Each one gives voice to the idea that as a society, more redistribution is needed. They are typical of some of the responses that are thrumming through the media as governments set their path to economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic. People holding Yuen’s first first view will tend to argue that it is business that needs help. Those taking the second view will be more likely to support programs that will make housing and food more affordable.


  1. There’s a link to Yuen’s article in: America’s Public Housing: Born To Die