QUEST – Putting your money where your mouth is

websitelogoQuest isn’t a food bank; it sells food and household items at reduced prices. It’s specifically for the low-income community. Shoppers must have a referral from a social service organization, so no “walk ins”. What a switch from the way things usually are, where the poor people are usually turned away, not the rich ones!

I have been volunteering at the 611 East Hastings Quest since August 2012. It’s like a village general store, where people hug, and coo over babies, and talk politics. The staff – Michelle, Nick and Blayne – are friendly, and know many of the shoppers by name. It’s wheelchair and scooter accessible, and we stock things on shelves they can reach. Most people like shopping. “Retail Therapy” Muriel calls it. Most of us love grabbing a “deal” –  our ancient hunting instincts?

I heard Quest is “a place where you can shop with dignity” at my volunteer orientation. This fits with my opinion that food banks, soup lines, and charity are bandaid solutions, where people often feel humiliation and a sense of powerlessness.

“The bottom line is if you’re poor, you’re expected to stand in lines and take cheap, unhealthy, processed food from the charity that offers it and be grateful.” A radio show interviewed a man in a soupline; “It feels like the volunteers giving out the food have a halo around their heads. It might make the volunteers feel good about themselves, but it makes me feel terrible.”

The idea of poverty as a character defect or hunger as “bad budgeting” sets the stage for the government to withdraw supports for low-income people. If you believe that the poor should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you can justify cuts to public housing and social services.

“Beggars can’t be choosers” originated in 1546 before any organized state support for the poor. It means when resources are limited, you must accept even substandard gifts. It is said when you must accept an offer because it’s the only one. However, it’s more often the attitude from the one giving the hand-out – “take it and shut up, or you don’t get anything.”This makes it difficult if you have diet-related health problems like diabetes, heart disease and food allergies.

Foodbanks became widespread during the recession of the 80s. They were meant to be a temporary, emergency measure.In 1989, the Canadian Association of Food Banks included a sunset clause in its constitution, to wrap up within 3 years, once the crisis was over. But food banks became vital as governments slashed social assistance, failed to establish an adequate minimum wage, cut back on affordable housing and childcare, and dismantled the social safety net.

Robert is a “regular” who bins and eats on 50 cents, sometimes a dollar, a day. He’s gone to the Foodbank a few times, but it makes him feel terrible and guilty, and his bag was gone in 2 days. He says Quest “makes me feel more free. You can’t do that anywhere else. It helps me ‘cause I’m low income; it picks my spirit up.”

More Quests aren’t the solution, though they would be nice. The real change needs to be a massive overhaul of the welfare system.


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