THUNDER BAY – A new registration system to access local food banks is raising concerns over user dignity and accessibility.
Food banks affiliated with the Regional Food Distribution Association (RFDA) now direct users to register through the social services help line, 211. The process includes questions on their living situation and sources of income, and a request to provide identification.
The change came about in the spring, when many food banks closed down due to COVID-19, asking users to register for a centralized food bank at the CLE.
Even as many have reopened their doors, they’re sticking with the registration process, saying it benefits users and food banks alike.
The move has prompted concerns from some who work with vulnerable populations.
Erin Beagle is the executive director of Roots to Harvest, which runs youth employment and urban agriculture programs, as well as food assistance efforts that it boosted dramatically during the pandemic.
She believes in a no-questions-asked model, saying requests for personal information and ID can drive some away, even if imposed with the best of intentions.
“When you ask [food banks], ‘What if somebody doesn’t bring that?’ they say everybody gets food, and that’s great. Our request has been, then don’t ask – because people who think they need to bring it won’t access help.”
Volker Kromm, the RFDA’s executive director, stresses that users can decline questions, and says no one is refused food.
But signals to users can be mixed, with words like “must” or “required” sometimes appearing at food banks or on social media.
“There has been confusion in the past, but at this point, anyone requiring a food hamper must call 211 for registration,” one RFDA Facebook post read.
A notice posted at one member food bank stated that ID is mandatory: “Sorry, no proper I.D., no food.”
Such policies pose a real problem, says Beth Ponka, director of administration at the Kinna-Aweya Legal Clinic. The clinic’s Awenen Niin Identification Program helps clients obtain ID needed to access housing, income maintenance, education, banking, employment, and other services.
“When I see that ID is required to access food banks…I know there’s a real problem with people being able to access ID, so it really makes me feel concerned,” she says.
“There’s already stigma attached to going to a food bank. Being questioned in that way and not being able to comply… If you know that’s going to be a requirement, you’re not going to go.”
Dr. Charles Levkoe, a Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at Lakehead University, says asking people to provide information like what kind of social assistance they’re on makes an already difficult process worse.
“Coming to a food bank is a really crappy experience – already you’ve taken a huge hit to your dignity,” he says. “To be asked to prove you’re poor… it creates this level of additional stress and pressure that’s just unnecessary.”
Kromm says registration helps direct people to the right services, while the data supports anti-poverty advocacy efforts.
“It’d be nice to know how many people we’re serving, how many children and seniors are going hungry,” says Kromm. “We’re strong proponents of a basic income. If we can go to the politicians [with that information], it helps us advocate for the reduction of poverty.”
Information on users’ income sources, for example, can be used to push for greater social supports.
“It provides a profile,” says Marie Klassen, director of services for the Lakehead Social Planning Council, which operates 211. “If they’re on Ontario Works – and a lot of them are recipients of OW – then OW needs to know that maybe they need to supplement their payments.”
Klassen says she’s not aware of any users raising concerns over the process, and emphasizes it’s fully voluntary.
“We’re doing it very respectfully,” she says. “It’s not something in stone, that you’re not going to get a food hamper if you don’t abide by the so-called rules.”
The need to provide information or ID is increasingly common, Kromm adds, saying he's heard few objections from users.
“Is it embarrassing to them? Maybe to some, and that’s why you can opt out,” he says. “But to others, it really isn’t that much of a problem. Wherever we go, we have to show ID – you can’t even buy beer at Safeway [without it].”
Registration questions are set by Feed Ontario, a provincial network of food banks, meal programs, and other services. Members, which include the RFDA, have been required to use its Link2Feed system to collect user data since 2014.
Feed Ontario stresses that users can choose to remain anonymous and can’t be denied service if they don’t answer questions.
Beagle praised the 211 system as an “amazing service” and appreciates the value of collecting basic information. However, she believes the formal registration process and lack of clarity around its voluntary nature raise questions about dignified food access.
That’s evident in talk of registration helping to tackle “double dipping,” she says.
It’s not unusual for users to visit multiple food banks or have members of the same family access aid separately to maximize what they receive, says one food bank user who spoke with Tbnewswatch. Users may have high levels of need, or find only a small portion of the food given out meets their needs, Beagle says.
The issue was becoming a problem, according to Kromm.
“If people go to multiple [food banks], we’re not going to stop them,” he says. “We encourage them, take what you need. The problem before [COVID-19] was there was so much, it was uncontrollable. Before the food banks all worked together, people would do the route.”
Beagle has noticed the phenomenon with Roots to Harvest’s programs (though she says it's not widespread), but sees it as a non-issue.
“Are people accessing multiple sites with our family food bags? Yes. We have to ask ourselves, so what?”
“We’re not running out of food bags. If they need more food and for whatever reason they’re not getting enough from us… I don’t need to ask a million questions about why or how that is.”