How food banks are improving client choice and dignity to reach more people facing food insecurity

Choice models – or food banks laid out to allow clients some level of choice in their food selection, from offering a select number of options to a full-scale ‘grocery store’ experience – have gained popularity in recent years for their numerous benefits.

A 2021 study of Ottawa area food banks looked at the advantages of different models including the choice model. The study found that the choice model was particularly helpful for people avoiding certain foods for medical reasons, such as following a diabetic-friendly diet or managing a gluten allergy, as well as cultural and religious reasons. Peoples’ access to fruits and vegetables also increased in the choice model as did a more dignified experience.

Across the Food Banks Canada network of 4,750 food banks and community agencies, many of our members have been experimenting with choice models to improve experiences for clients with dietary restrictions, increase opportunities for social connection and, very practically, to reduce waste.

Choice models that create dignified and healthier environments

At the Clarington East Food Bank in Newcastle, Ont., Program Manager Susan Pascoe said switching from pre-packed food hampers to a shopping model where clients have the freedom to choose their own food items has had a significant impact for the individuals and families using their services.

“When I joined Clarington East Food Bank, we operated a food hamper program. After reading ‘Reinventing Food Banks’, I approached our board to switch to a shopping model. With the board’s support, and a Feed Ontario Feeding Possibility Grant, we moved to a larger facility and established a shopping model,” Pascoe said. “The impact has been significant. Our neighbours feel dignified, respected, and valued when they come to the food bank. We significantly increased the volunteer base and our volunteers make all the difference to our neighbours.”

Through Food Banks Canada’s 2022 Capacity Boost, the Parkdale Community Food Bank in Toronto, Ont. was able to purchase additional cold storage equipment and return to their beloved shopping model, strategically increasing their capacity to continue to serve their mission of ensuring access to barrier-free food, with choice, dignity and respect for all.

Parkdale Community Food Bank Executive Director Kitty Raman Costa said securing the additional refrigeration equipment played a huge role not only in enhancing their ability to keep up with a significant client increase – from 1,500 families per month in 2019 to 6,000 families per month in 2023 – but also acquiring the necessary equipment for their shopping space to better meet the needs of the community.

“This grant enabled us to enhance our food storage, including temperature-controlled facilities, ensuring our ability to meet the growing demand for our services,” Costa said. “In addition to supporting us in successfully moving back to our shopping model, the funding ensured our ability to keep up with rising numbers long-term. As of December 2023, we are serving over 9,000 families every month.”

In November 2022, to address the concerning uptick in demand for food assistance at the University of Alberta as students struggle with the high cost of living, staff and volunteers at the Campus Food Bank overhauled their original food hamper program into a grocery model. Since then, Programs Manager Madi Corry said clients have been provided with a sense of autonomy and dignity while also reducing food waste and improving the efficiency of the food bank.

“It used to take many volunteer hours to assemble pre-packaged food hampers for clients, and we were getting too busy to build hampers for each day,” Corry said. “Now with the grocery model, people are only taking things they need, and we’re not giving them things they might not be able to use.”

Campus Food Bank Executive Director Erin O’Neil said that after making the switch to a grocery store model, they have gone from serving an average of 10.2 kilograms per visit to an average of 9.6 kilograms per visit.

“Our maximum limits have not decreased, so we attribute this change to clients shopping only for what they and their families will eat,” O’Neil said.

Promoting client dignity with operational efficiency is essential as the number of people using food bank services in Canada continues to grow.

According to the latest release of the Food Banks Canada HungerCount report, there were almost 2 million visits to food banks across Canada in March 2023 alone, representing the highest levels on record.