Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 177-186

First online:

Food assistance through “surplus” food: Insights from an ethnographic study of food bank work

  • Valerie TarasukAffiliated withDepartment of Nutritional Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto Email author 
  • , Joan M. EakinAffiliated withDepartment of Public Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto

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In Canada, food assistance is provided through a widespread network of extra-governmental, community-based, charitable programs, popularly termed “food banks”. Most of the food they distribute has been donated by food producers, processors, and retailers or collected through appeals to the public. Some industry donations are of market quality, but many donations are “surplus” food that cannot be retailed. Drawing on insights from an ethnographic study of food bank work in southern Ontario, we examined how the structure and function of food banks operate to facilitate the distribution of foods not marketed through the retail system. Our findings indicate that the handling of industry donations of unsaleable products is a labor-intensive activity, made possible by the surfeit of unpaid labor in food banks, the neediness of food bank clients, and clients’ lack of rights in this system. The marshalling of volunteer labor to serve a corporate need might be construed as a “win-win” situation because the work of salvaging edible foodstuffs from among industry “surplus” helps to “feed the hungry” while also diminishing the amount of refuse deposited in landfill sites, sparing corporations disposal costs and landfill tipping fees, and helping them forge an image of good corporate citizenship. However, the reliance of food banks on industry donations means that food assistance becomes defined as that which the corporate sector cannot retail. Moreover, the intertwining of food bank work with corporate needs may function to further entrench this ad hoc secondary food system and mitigate against initiatives to develop more effective responses to problems of hunger and food insecurity in our communities.


Canada Corporate donations Ethnography Food banks Food charity Food insecurity Surplus food Volunteer work