IDEAS home Printed from
MyIDEAS: Log in (now much improved!) to save this article

Charitable food assistance as symbolic gesture: an ethnographic study of food banks in Ontario

Listed author(s):
  • Tarasuk, Valerie
  • Eakin, Joan M.
Registered author(s):

    Community-based charitable food assistance programs have recently been established in several affluent nations to distribute public and corporate food donations to 'the needy'. In Canada, food banks comprise the primary response to hunger and food insecurity, but problems of unmet food need persist. We conducted an ethnographic study of food bank work in southern Ontario to examine the functioning of these extra-governmental, charitable food assistance programs in relation to problems of unmet need. Our results suggest that the limited, variable and largely uncontrollable supply of food donations shaped the ways in which food assistance was defined and the practices that governed its distribution. Workers framed the food assistance as a supplement or form of acute hunger relief, but generally acknowledged that the food given was insufficient to fully meet the needs of those who sought assistance. In response to supply limitations, workers restricted both the frequency with which individual clients could receive assistance and the amount and selection of food that they received on any one occasion. Food giving was essentially a symbolic gesture, with the distribution of food assistance dissociated from clients' needs and unmet needs rendered invisible. We conclude that, structurally, food banks lack the capacity to respond to the food needs of those who seek assistance. Moreover, the invisibility of unmet need in food banks provides little impetus for either community groups or government to seek solutions to this problem.

    If you experience problems downloading a file, check if you have the proper application to view it first. In case of further problems read the IDEAS help page. Note that these files are not on the IDEAS site. Please be patient as the files may be large.

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: Full text for ScienceDirect subscribers only

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to look for a different version under "Related research" (further below) or search for a different version of it.

    Article provided by Elsevier in its journal Social Science & Medicine.

    Volume (Year): 56 (2003)
    Issue (Month): 7 (April)
    Pages: 1505-1515

    in new window

    Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:7:p:1505-1515
    Contact details of provider: Web page:

    Order Information: Postal:

    No references listed on IDEAS
    You can help add them by filling out this form.

    This item is not listed on Wikipedia, on a reading list or among the top items on IDEAS.

    When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:7:p:1505-1515. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Dana Niculescu)

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If references are entirely missing, you can add them using this form.

    If the full references list an item that is present in RePEc, but the system did not link to it, you can help with this form.

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    This information is provided to you by IDEAS at the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis using RePEc data.