August 9, 2017

Food Banks: Perceptions of an International Student

Food banks generally provide food to less privileged and disadvantaged individuals in our communities. Food banks were first initiated in the United States of America, however, food banks have grown to become a household name in many communities around the world. The primary purpose of a food bank is to receive and distribute food to reduce or prevent hunger. These fixed ideas were imprinted in my mind after my first exposure to the concept of food banks. Imprinted by whom? Why did I perceive food banks as only a food storage and distribution concept? At the time, there was a dearth in my knowledge about food security and food sovereignty. I only understood food security from the viewpoint of poverty and lack thereof of knowledge which can improve access to nutritious quality meals. After all, why will an individual need to go to a physical location to access free food.
I had moved from Ghana, to this new location which I was excited to integrate into as soon as possible. During my period living in the United States as an international student, I never visited a food bank. However, I would often hear about a call from food banks, for food from community members and students, specifically cans of food and less perishable foods. I would think that this was a well-meaning cause for those who needed food and yet, I was not sold on the idea of eating canned food. I must admit that growing up, I was spoiled by easy access to fresh cooked meals, hot from the pot with no use of a microwave. This was just the norm in my community and my country and it was not because of riches or access to cheap food. I recalled the smell of fresh “light soup” with bay leaves, tomatoes and peppers, and pounded cassava and yams (fufu). I believe I would have almost starved if I had to choose canned food instead of a nice cooked meal. I was still adjusting to life in America and little did I know that on one chilly night in the near future, I would rely on a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup and crackers to help me get over my flu. Since that day, I occasionally purchased some canned soup from the grocery store. Some years down the line, I found that comparable grocery store items could be found in both grocery stores and food banks.

Canned and packed foods

Fast forward into the future, I arrived in Canada a few years later, once again an international student trying to familiarize myself with a North American country. After days of orientations, I learned that a food bank was located somewhere on the university campus. To my surprise, a food bank charge was listed on my student bill. I wondered and said out loud to myself, “why are students paying for the food?” I knew very little about food banks and all I knew were the words “needed” and “free”. A month had gone by and I had still not been to the food bank to see what it was all about. I kept hearing people talk about the food bank but this only surprised me as I expected cans of soup and beans. As an international student, I needed to budget wisely and ensure that I had enough food without breaking the bank. After a few months of spending scarce dollars on food and the thought of shame often accompanied by visits to food banks, I weighed my options. I cared very little about what it meant to visit a food bank. I thought to myself, “why am I spending the salary of one adult person (in Ghana) on just food?” The idea haunted me anytime I went grocery shopping. Also, I never had enough to buy the food products I needed, or access the products I needed. I relied heavily on specific vegetables, fruits and rice, the cheaper ones of course. Even though any choice of food produce was expensive, I was too far away from an “African store” to purchase anything familiar or cheaper. As a matter of fact, food from African stores cost more because of export and storage requirements. As a result, I improvised with the basic and common foods like onions, tomatoes and oranges.


Finally, I decided to visit the food bank to save money and access food. I was dumfounded when I arrived at the food bank provided by the university.  Mind you the food bank was a smaller version of what one could find in any Canadian community food bank. I was met by warm greetings from fellow students. One student was stacking both fresh and non-perishable foods, while the other asked if this was my first time so she could sign me up with a membership card. I was expecting to find only pre-packaged bags of canned food ready to hand off to the needy. This was often the condescending and shaming thoughts I had associated with food banks. To my surprise, I found a lively room busy with students (single or with families) from diverse backgrounds, and storage bins filled with a large variety of food produce. In a walk-in room to my left there were two freezers and one fridge filled to the brim with milk and crates of eggs. The freezers contained, fish, chicken, frozen pancakes, frozen vegetables, hamburgers, and the list continuous. In the main open space, bins had been filled with onions, eggplant, coloured peppers, carrots, bananas, apples, oranges potatoes and other fruits and vegetables. 

Frozen Beef

There was a second room with non-perishable breakfast foods, oatmeal and cereal bars. Rice, lentils, cans of soup, tuna, beans, chicken, tomatoes spaghetti, flour and sugar were all available for the taking. I felt as though I was in the wrong place. This was not a food bank, but a mini grocery store that cost almost nothing. Of course, portion sizes had been conveniently provided to ensure that everyone had equal access to the food provided. When I finally recovered from my surprise about the food bank, I noticed a message board with a list of ingredients and recipes provided for interested individuals and families. I wondered to myself “why would someone take the time to make this recipe board and why is it necessary?”  Most importantly, all the ingredients listed could be found in the food bank so the meals were achievable. Contrary to my previous beliefs, my first rational thought about the food bank was that distribution was not the primary goal of this food bank. The administrators set out to provide access to a variety of nutritious meals to all and to ensure that quality food was provided. Two things happened to me that day, first I redefined my conception of food banks and secondly, I wanted to learn more about food banks.  

Lentils and Cereals

I set out to do some research on my own and found that even though Canada is a wealthy country, people are still living in poverty and they still have little access to food. For every 6 individuals supported in Canada by food banks, 1 person has a job. This means that not having a stable source of income is not the only reason for a person to visit a food bank. Food banks provide much more than food related support. Corporate and local food bank partners encourage support from able organizations and individuals, collect and provide safe quality food, raise funds to support the cause, provide household products, general skill training and build capacity for community members to make the most of their access to food, while reducing hunger and improving the quality of lives (examples include starting community gardens and developing cooking skills). Food banks are bringing community members together to share a meal and fight for a common worthy cause. So, there is more to food banks! I have benefited from a visit to the food bank! Now, how can I as an individual contribute to this idea that appears to be bigger than just access to food.  I had so much more to learn on this new journey.

Antonia Abena Ofosu, Graduate Student, ECVOntario, Canada
Read More »