• Photograph by Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

An Upstream Take on Food Bank Giving This Holiday Season

It’s that time of year when hunger drives are in full swing. There’s huge push for donations of food, funds, and time to food banks in communities across the country. 

Here in Saskatchewan we have, for example, the CBC’s Comfort and Joy Campaign. While I appreciate the efforts the CBC and many other organizations go to in order to raise awareness about hunger in the lead up to the holidays, as a food security researcher and advocate, I’m left wondering how we can have a more upstream public conversation about this important problem.

Food security has a widely used international definition (see FAO), but food insecurity is measured at the household level as “the inadequate or insecure access to adequate food due to financial constraints. The experience of food insecurity can range from concerns about running out of food before there is more money to buy more, to the inability to afford a balanced diet, to going hungry, missing meals, and in extreme cases, not eating for a whole day because of a lack of food and money for food.” [1] For a brief description of how food insecurity looks at the household level in Canada, click here.

Food insecurity was significantly higher in 2012 than it was in 2008

Here’s what we know about the situation of food insecurity in Canada. According to the most recent national data, 12.6% of Canadians or 2.8 million adults and 1.6 million children experience some degree of food insecurity (and this number is much higher in Northern communities) [1]. Food insecurity was significantly higher in 2012 than it was in 2008. Although an under-representation of the problem, we often look to food bank usage as a sign of growing food insecurity. The 2014 HungerCount report, published by Food Banks Canada, found that 841,191 people use a food bank monthly, which is 25% higher than in 2008 [2]. 


This is an important problem with long term health and mental health consequences [3-5], and I know that food insecurity to this degree is both unacceptable and totally preventable. My work and the way I live my life has allowed me to see up close the consequences of food insecurity, and the immense effort parents living in poverty go to in order to try to make ends meet for their family. 

Okay, so what to do about it? Typically the conversation focuses on donating to food banks - but this doesn’t address the root cause of the problem. Food banks deal with a problem not only after it’s happened, but arguably only reach the tip of the food insecurity iceberg, those people who, for whatever reason, reach out for help. Food banks also rarely are able to provide food that is consistent with a nutritious diet [6]. What about the people who don’t, or can’t, ask for help?

Food banks deal with a problem not only after it’s happened, but arguably only reach the tip of the food insecurity iceberg

How then do we shift the conversation to focus on the root causes of food insecurity? An article I recently read about upstream thinking around homelessness asked the same question, and explained that Michael Shapcott has talked about a great formula we can all use. It’s the one-third, one-third, one-third approach. Spend one-third of your money, time, etc. on downstream efforts, spend one-third on upstream efforts, and one-third on advocacy for immediate and long term change.


Photo courtesy of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

Here’s how this could look when we consider the issue of food insecurity in our communities. The downstream efforts are the ones we are most familiar with, and include donating time and/or money to organizations such as a food bank or soup kitchen. Trying to determine appropriate upstream and advocacy efforts is where most of us get stuck. When it comes to food insecurity the best upstream efforts are focused on the elimination of poverty. Here’s two solutions that are likely to have very important effects on long term population health: 

Trying to determine appropriate upstream and advocacy efforts is where most of us get stuck

1) We can work to ensure all workers are paid a living wage. What’s a living wage? Put simply, it’s a wage that reflects the actual costs of living in a particular community. It means that workers can have one full-time job that will cover all of their basic needs so they can contribute to their communities in meaningful ways. 

2) We can contribute to efforts to establish a Guaranteed Annual Income for those who are not employed. A Guaranteed Annual Income would be similar to the guaranteed income programs that currently exist for seniors in Canada and have been very successful in decreasing poverty in that age group [7]. It would extend the income supports currently provided to seniors to the whole non-working population in Canada, and there’s evidence to show that it would likely not be as expensive as we might think and would lead to significant savings in the health system (and quite likely the social services and justice systems also) [7,8]. Canada has already experimented with a Guaranteed Annual Income in the town of Dauphin, Manitoba between 1974-1979 to significant success [8,9].


Photo courtesy of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

So this holiday season and throughout the year, each time we donate money, food or time to a food charity, we should also educate ourselves about the benefits of a living wage and Guaranteed Annual Income, and talk to our friends, neighbours and co-workers about why they are important. Further, we should become involved in or donate to organizations that are campaigning for both, because as much as food hampers fill an important need – they are never going to end hunger.


Read more about the Mincome experiment in this blog by Vivian Belik - The Case for Basic Income

Find out more about Upstream's Solutions Not Stuff campaign

Dr. Rachel Engler-Stringer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of our Upstream Think Tank. She has a doctorate in Nutrition and her research interests include community food security, food environments and food access, food system sustainability, health promotion, and community-based and participatory research. She is also an avid cook and takes great satisfaction from growing some of her own food.



1. Tarasuk, V.; Mitchell, A.; Dachner, N. Household food insecurity in canada, 2012; Toronto, 2014.

2. Food Banks Canada. Hungercount 2014; Missisauga, ON, 2014.

3. Che, J.; Chen, J. Food insecurity in canadian households. Health reports / Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Health Information = Rapports sur la sante / Statistique Canada, Centre canadien d'information sur la sante 2001, 12 (4), 11-22.

4. Kirkpatrick, S.I.; McIntyre, L.; Potestio, M.L. Child hunger and long-term adverse consequences for health. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 2010, 164 (8), 754-762.

5. Vozoris, N.; Tarasuk, V. Household food insufficiency is associated with poorer health. Journal of Nutrition 2003, 133, 120-126.

6. Tarasuk, V.; N., D.; Hamelin, A.M.; Ostry, A.; Williams, P.; Bosckei, E.; Poland, B.; Raine, K. A survey of food bank operations in five canadian cities. BMC Public Health 2014, 14, 1234.

7. Emery, J.H.; FLeisch, V.C.; McIntyre, L. How a guaranteed annual income could put food banks out of business. The School of Public Policy Research Papers 2013, 6, 1-17.

8. Forget, E. The town with no poverty: The health effects of a canadian guanrateed annual income field experiment. Canadian Public Policy 2011, 37, 283-305.

9. Forget, E. New questions, new data, old interventions: The health effects of a guranteed annual income. Preventive medicine 2013, 57, 925-928.


Connect upstream.