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Food banks are growing, literally

An increasing number of food banks are growing their own food. Food banks in Mississauga, Ont. and Surrey, B.C. recently launched vertical farms using hydroponics. A Regina, Sask. food bank now has its own highly sophisticated LED-illuminated greenhouse. It seems more such projects are expected to be launched across the country.

Food banks growing their own food due to a decreasing number of donations could be viewed as an act of desperation. However, it can benefit many including the food banks themselves. This change speaks to a seismic shift in how food banks perceive their own socioeconomic role going forward.

Historically, the focus of a food bank has been to provide food to those in need. People entered in shame and walked away with a box or two to feed themselves and their loved ones for a short while. But, food banks across the country are experiencing an economic awakening. They are no longer just about making people food-secure. Their space is really about the wellness of human beings. They are no longer apologizing for existing with the aim of actually disappearing over the long term. People will continue to experience change in their situations and food banks can respond faster than any government program — period.

Now, for food banks, it is about nutrition security and providing hope to victims of market failures. A food bank is no longer just a place for people down on their luck. Food banks are committed to healing and giving people a chance to succeed. It is a significant paradigm shift from just a few years ago, and greenhouses and gardens are consistent with this new approach.

Food banks understand it can be very beneficial to move from retailing hunger to 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 that include a sourcing component. More than a third of people visiting food banks are under 18. Many of these young people are ready to learn and become equipped with cooking skills that allow them to prepare their own meals. Food preparation at home leads to savings and food security.

Gardens are also a perfect vehicle to demystifying food banks to a larger public, which has rarely if ever seen the inside of a food bank. Not many potential volunteers are attracted by the prospect of moving boxes around and developing warehousing skills. Gardening, however, can attract a new flock of citizens wanting to make a difference. Food banks are about connecting human beings who are experiencing high levels of vulnerability and uncertainty. Gardens can act as a portal for nurturing souls in dire need of care and nourishment.

Those who visit food banks have the right to know what good food tastes like — a reasonable expectation for anyone. Nutritionally poor, highly-processed foods cannot change lives. On the other hand, education and good quality foods can. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see more and more food banks aspiring to increase the nutritional bandwidth.

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