This study drew on a rich source of data that tracked detailed patterns of food bank use among a population of over 100,000 individuals for 25 years from one of Canada’s largest food bank organizations. To our knowledge, this is the first analysis of its kind in North America, providing valuable insight into the varied patterns of engagement used by individuals that draw on food bank programs. Findings suggest that overall, the majority of members from this Vancouver-area food bank organization can be characterized as short-term, transitional users who visited food banks a handful of times and disengaged after a few weeks or months of use. On the other hand, food banks also clearly provide ongoing supports to a small subset of longer-term users, some of whom cycle in and out of the food bank system, while others remain deeply engaged and come regularly over the course of many years and in some cases decades. While episodic and chronic users collectively comprised only 9% of the food bank population, they accounted for 65% of all food bank visits. This reveals that a substantial proportion of food bank resources are providing ongoing food supports beyond what can be considered an acute or emergency context.
To our knowledge, there are no other long-term longitudinal data from other food bank organizations with which to compare these findings. However, a recent British study using data from the West Cheshire food bank similarly found that between 2013 and 2015, 55% of households came for only a single visit, but that the 16% of users with the highest frequency of visits (4 or more visits between 2013 and 2015), comprised 43% of all visits (Garratt 2017). In a small (n = 270) cross-sectional convenience sample of food bank users in the boroughs of London, England, 49% and 30% of study participants reported coming only once or twice to the food bank in the past 6 months, respectively, and only 9% visited four or more times (Prayogo et al. 2017). On the other hand, a recent report of food bank users from three German cities found that the majority of users (70%) were engaged for over 12 months with most (68%) reporting visiting 4 or more times each month (Depa et al. 2018), suggesting that service models and usage patterns vary greatly in different contexts.
Findings here also point to several life circumstances that were strongly associated with deeper, longer engagement with food bank services. In particular, members relying on pensions or disability-related assistance as their main sources of income (compared with members recently earning income or using student loans), and members with disclosed health and mobility challenges, were consistently and substantially more likely to have higher engagement. Directions of these findings were consistent regardless of how engagement was modelled and results remained robust after controlling for a wide set of other potentially confounding factors.
Current findings hence align with growing evidence in Canada and internationally that food bank use is deeply connected to extreme financial vulnerability, and experiences of disability and state welfare reforms (Garthwaite et al. 2015; Holmes 2017; Loopstra and Lalor 2017). Indeed, the provincial welfare benefit system has been critiqued for being structurally dependent on food banks and other charities to assist people in meeting basic needs in the wake of neoliberal policy changes (McBride and McNutt 2007). In British Columbia specifically, the welfare system caseloads and proportions of forms of assistance received have changed substantially in the past 25 years. For example, Pulkingham notes a steep drop in the rates of entrance to social assistance reported from the mid-1990s through the rest of that decade (Pulkingham 2015). While the current study did not formally test the associations between welfare policies and food bank use, the late 1990s was also a time of substantial growth in the number of GVFB food banks, rates of new members joining, and growth in annual visits to the organization.
There is also evidence and reports from social services staff and recipients that provincial government staff divert applicants for social assistance to food banks and emergency shelters (Wallace and Klein 2006). Even among those able to access social assistance in BC, income levels have been critiqued for being insufficient for meeting the daily food needs of households (Vu et al. 2008). For example, Klein et al. (2008) estimated that among a sample of participants who had been on social assistance for at least 15 months, 46% reported that they had often been hungry during the past month. Moreover, 77% of participants reported receiving food from a food bank, soup kitchen, or drop-in centre during the previous month, and the majority visited charitable food programs multiple times (Klein et al. 2008). Klein et al.’s 2-year longitudinal study further found that persons able to return to the labour market and leave social assistance programs voluntarily reported lower food bank usage and less severe experiences of hunger (both while on social assistance and after exiting the program).
Pulkingham (2015) further notes the trend towards a “medicalized system of income support” in British Columbia, where individuals on “temporary assistance” have declined steeply while the rates of persons reliant on disability assistance have risen (Pulkingham 2015). As of 2013, disability assistance cases made up the majority (62%) of the total welfare caseload compared to just one-tenth in 1995 (increasing steeply despite the overall decline in social assistance caseloads). Disability cases are also more likely to be on assistance for longer according to BC Government, and in 2013, nearly 90% of individuals receiving assistance for over 60 months were receiving disability assistance (Government of Canada 2016a, b). Together with the current study, these findings demonstrate the need for further investigation into the interconnected roles and impacts of provincial and federal social assistance systems on food bank usage patterns and food (in)security outcomes, particularly for persons relying on disability-related supports who may come to rely on food banks as a long-term food augmentation strategy.
This study’s findings also draw attention to the experiences of seniors who rely on the food banking system, particularly in British Columbia, a province that in 2015 reported the highest of any provincial poverty rate among seniors age 65 and over (SPARC BC 2018). While reported prevalence of food insecurity in Canada is lower among Canadians over age 65 and those receiving federal pension benefits (Emery et al. 2013; McIntyre et al. 2016), findings here suggest that older adults and those reporting pensions as their main source of income experience barriers to disengaging from food bank use. Moreover, there is evidence that both average age and the proportion of seniors engaging with GVFB are rising. In 1992, only 4% of new food bank users were 65 +, compared to 12% in 2017.
This study can also inform ongoing debates and critiques regarding the goals and activities of charitable food programs. Previous discussions have lacked empirical data to probe critical questions about whether charitable food programs are used to meet short-term, “emergency” needs, or are rather serving as a long-term resource in the absence of more effective poverty reduction strategies. Results from this study suggest that both experiences are salient. While the majority of users engaged with the food bank for only a short time, little is known about these members’ experiences or reasons for disengaging. For some, their economic or personal circumstances may have improved, reducing the need to seek supplemental foods through the charitable system. This study does provide some empirical support for this pathway given that members reporting income sources suggestive of recent employment or access to personal savings were more likely to disengage than those relying on disability assistance or pensions. However, this study cannot capture the extent to which disengagement was related to known barriers to food bank participation (including poor physical access due to transportation barriers or timing of food bank hours), or the impacts of stigmatizing or negative experiences, as examples. In a recent mixed methods study from a small sample of GVFB food banks, the majority of participants reported feeling safe and respected at Vancouver food banks (Holmes 2017). But Holmes and others have also identified several challenges in terms of service delivery including long line ups, stressful environments, and insufficient quantity and quality of food to meet needs or preferences that could also discourage repeated visits (Poppendieck 1998; Wakefield et al. 2012; Riches and Tarasuk 2014; Middleton et al. 2018).
Current findings clearly show that the lives of some food bank members are deeply connected with an ongoing relationship with food banks over many years. Although significant and ongoing financial vulnerability is a factor in long-term food bank engagement, there has been little empirical study to more deeply examine the reasons for or effects of longer-term engagement. For some, ongoing use may be shored up by the creation of social networks and community linkages that provide a space for some members to find connection and “spaces of care” (Cloke et al. 2017). For example, 4% of current members also served as food bank volunteers with evidence that volunteers had more engaged usage patterns. Longer-term members may also build relationships and supports within the food bank organization or find other incentives for participation beyond meeting household food needs.
But the presence of long-term use also likely suggests sustained barriers to meeting food needs. Given that longer-term usage was strongly connected with income source, existing mobility challenges, and an increased number of household members sharing food, single parenthood, and older age, the ability to move out of the food bank system is likely constrained by several systemic and life-course factors. In our recent work with a small convenience sample of GVFB members, we found that members reported very high rates and severity of food insecurity and health challenges. Moreover, neither length nor frequency of food bank use was associated with reduced odds of experiencing severe food insecurity (Holmes 2017), which can include reductions in food quality or quantity, experiencing hunger, weight loss, and skipping meals.
It is also worth noting that 7% of this population were characterized as episodic, longer-term users, and that both long and short duration pauses/cycles of usage were common even among shorter-term users. The evidence of episodic usage suggests that food banks may play a role for members with fluctuating economic circumstances. We unfortunately had no linked personal data about how changes in life circumstances (including access to housing or homelessness, employment or other social services or personal supports) impacted food bank patterns, and a valuable next step for research would be to examine how changing policy, funding contexts, and access to personal financial resources can improve food insecurity outcomes.
There are several limitations to keep in mind when interpreting findings from this study. First, while GVFB is a significant provider of supplemental food in the region, the study did not capture food provided through alternative programming, nor the dozens of other food banks or charitable food programs nearby. Moreover, these data are from a single organization providing service in one Canadian metropolitan area and may not reflect patterns of use from other regions or organizations. Looking into this “service ecosystem” may well yield more complex dynamics with respect to food program access patterns. Estimates reported here also likely underestimate duration and frequency of food bank usage for several reasons. First, members occasionally forget or lose their membership identification cards, and we cannot account for visits that were not logged in the administrative database. GVFB estimates that at least 1000 members have used more than one identification number (owing to lost or replaced id cards over time) and it was not possible to identify these members because data were anonymized prior to analysis to maintain confidentiality.
Metro Vancouver is among Canada’s most expensive housing markets but is also among Canada’s cities with the largest proportion of households earning low incomes (City of Vancouver 2015) which can shape both supply and demand for supplemental food. Historically, GVFB has typically restricted visits to once per week approximately 3 times each month. However, for this analysis, there were no available historical or program-specific records regarding implementation of varied visit limits or other policies with which to reflect on organizational barriers or facilitators of usage over time. For example, ease of access to information about where food bank sites are located has varied historically and is now more readily available than in early years. The organization has also changed greatly in size and staffing since its original 10 sites operated in 1992. For example, since 2012, GVFB has been under new leadership resulting in a distinct organizational shift towards more open and dynamic member engagement, aiming to design more welcoming and dignified spaces with a mission to “create empowering environments that provide and promote access to healthy food, education and training” (Greater Vancouver Food Bank 2017). Hence, it is possible the organization itself has reduced barriers to deeper engagement and has shifted the organizational culture to promote increased usage.
It is also important to acknowledge that all food bank statistics, regardless of their quality, underestimate the true prevalence of food insecurity. While Food Banks Canada estimates that under one million people in Canada used food banks over a 1 month time period in the years recently on record, national survey data estimate that over three million Canadians have inadequate or uncertain access to sufficient food because of financial constraints (Tarasuk et al. 2016). Even if questions about usage were included on nationally representative surveys (such as those integrated in the US Current Population Survey), such surveys still likely underrepresent usage owing to limitations in sampling (where low-income participants, and those with tenuous housing are less likely to participate in surveys in the first place) and estimates may also be biased by recall or social desirability biases.
Hence, this work speaks to the value of building trust and collaborations between food bank organizations and academic partners. The data collected by GVFB were the result of many years of institutional effort in attempting to create a fair and consistent approach to food distribution. In doing so, they created a remarkable archive of administrative information well suited to examining empirical questions about member usage, to inform evidence-based decision making within the organization, and potentially for extended usage in relation to social policy formulation. Strengths of this study therefore largely draw from the richness of these data amassed over 25 years that are not prone to sampling bias (since the data cover the entirely of the population) and are not subject to errors that would be inherent in trying to ascertain such data from members’ self reports of usage.