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Sylvain CharleboisFacing declining donations, an increasing number of Canadian food banks are growing their own food. Canadians may feel guilty for not giving enough but they shouldn’t. This is really about food banks adapting for the betterment of society.

The Mississauga, Ont., and Surrey, B.C., food banks recently launched vertical farms using hydroponics and aquaponics. The Regina food bank has a highly-sophisticated LED-illuminated greenhouse. And more such projects are expected to be launched across the country.

The fact that more food banks embracing the supply chain and growing food could be seen as an act of desperation due to decreasing donations. But the trend can benefit many, starting with the food banks.

The change speaks to a seismic shift in how food banks perceive their socio-economic role.

Donations have been declining for a variety of reasons.

Citizens are hard-pressed to give high-quality food away, although there’s plenty of peanut butter and Kraft Dinner on hand.

Food industrials like grocers and processors have forged incredibly generous partnerships with food banks across the country. And since food banks aren’t going to become obsolete anytime soon, these partnerships are key to their survival. But such partnerships rely on donations of leftover food that nobody else wants.

And farmers are as generous as they can be, given that food safety regulations and other types of constraints sometimes get in the way. Some provinces now offer incentives to farmers to entice them to donate. But farmers need to have available product to give away in the first place.

While food banks struggle for donations, they’re also adjusting their long-term perspectives.

Historically, food banks have focused on providing food to those in need.

But, across the country, they’re experiencing an economic awakening. They’re no longer just about making people food-secure. They’re really about the wellness of human beings. They’re no longer apologizing for existing, with the aim of being redundant over the long term. Food banks are here to stay because people will continue to experience changes in their situation and food banks simply respond faster than any government program.

For food banks, it’s now about nutrition security and providing hope to the victims of economic failures. Food banks offer sustenance, and are committed to healing and giving people a chance to succeed.

It’s a significant paradigm shift from just a few years ago, and greenhouses and gardens are consistent with this new approach.

Food banks are embracing the full scope of food systems. Gardens and greenhouses can provide the foundation of a curriculum around food. Cooking classes can be set up, including a sourcing component. More than a third of people visiting food banks are under the age of 18. Many of these young people are ready to learn to prepare their own meals. Food preparation at home leads to savings and greater food security.

Gardens also help connect food banks to the larger public, most of whom have never seen the inside of a food bank. Not many potential volunteers are attracted by the prospect of moving boxes and developing warehousing skills. Gardening, however, can attract a new flock of citizens wanting to make a difference.

Food banks are about connecting vulnerable and uncertain people with those who can help. Gardens can be portals for nurturing souls in dire need of care and nourishment.

Those who visit food banks have the right to good food – it’s a reasonable expectation for anyone. Nutritionally poor, highly-processed foods don’t change lives. But education and quality foods can. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see more and more food banks aspiring to increase the nutritional bandwidth.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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