Anna Cavouras | Opinion: Muffin Crumbs – the complicated case of free food and mental health

The Pastry Case

Working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, I learned a lot about free food. According to the 2015 Census the median household income is far below the poverty line. After rent is paid, people on welfare live on approximately $19 a week. There is free food throughout the neighbourhood and its prevalence might seem like people are eating in abundance. However, few organizations prioritize the individual as an eater while accessing this food. Organizations are often forced to make decisions based on budget, mandate, or donations, rather than on a community’s nutritional and human needs.

This has a profound effect on an individual’s mental well-being and on their sense of self-worth, resulting in a negative impact on overall community mental health. Studies are promising on this: gut health, achieved through nutrition, has a direct and profound impact on brain health and hence, mental health.

Let me give you an example: the donated pastry.

Corporations, such as coffee chains, bakeries, and grocery stores, donate unused and unwanted food for a variety of reasons: corporate generosity, tax breaks for diverting food from landfills, not wanting to pay for waste removal, brand improvement, and a sense of wanting to contribute to their community.

When I worked as an outreach worker we regularly received enormous amounts of donated pastries. These pastries, plus an abundance of free coffee, were the only things we had to consistently offer the hundreds of people who would pass through our program on a daily basis. For some, this would be the only thing they would eat all day and they would gather up as many as they could carry, either to stash or to share.

Garbage Bags for Days

Our donations arrived in clear garbage bags, revealing hundreds of muffins, doughnuts, scones, and biscuits, all smashed together in a pile. One of my duties was to sort out the pastries and put them on trays.

On an average day I threw out nearly one quarter of the food: muffins without tops, doughnuts with smeared icing, pieces of cookies, and inches of crumbs, and smashed pastries.

It Turns Out Free Food is (often) Crap

Having since gone on to work in the area of community food justice (communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food of their choosing), I became aware of how many organizations deal with garbage bags full of pastries. Much of the donated food is food people do not want. These donations, although they may have good intentions, are lacking in proper nutrition.

Nutrition that is critical to physical and mental health.

Many organizations offer donated pastries straight out of the garbage bags they came in, having neither the staff nor the time to sort through them. What food offered and how it is presented to people can be life-changing.

Don’t people need to EAT?

The act of donating food is not the problem – it is the downloading of responsibility of dignified and healthy food. Emergency food options such as soup kitchens and food banks are critical supports, but they are only a short-term option. A comprehensive poverty reduction plan would address lack of income issues, including food security, allowing people choice and autonomy over their food. Currently, Ontario has several initiatives as part of a province-wide poverty reduction strategy. Despite the recommendations of policy makers, non-profit groups and economists, BC does not.

We absolutely must provide sustenance for those who cannot afford it, but we must do it with dignity and a focus on the value of the individual. This leads to a more empowered and sustainable community where people experience less stress, greater self-worth, and an overall improvement in mental well-being. When food is given to people in garbage bags, it has a significant impact on a community’s mental health. This fact cannot be understated.

Donating leftover pastries does not solve hunger issues and does not support mental wellness.

We can do better.

Good Free Food: Some Practical Guidelines

Thinking outside the garbage bag and beyond the food bank is a daunting and immense task. Creating truly food-just communities will require the coordination of all levels of government, corporations, the charitable food sector, and the community.

But food justice lives in the details and even a bag of donated pastries can be approached and shared respectfully.  Recognizing the inherent personal dignity of each individual and focusing on the health benefits from the bones to the brain, is key to making meaningful change.

Think about the message you would receive about your self-worth if your next meal was pulled from a torn garbage bag.

Offering nutritious food – presented on a plate – demonstrates that everyone matters. Eliminating food line-ups signals to people that their time is worth something and that their personal hardships are not on public display.

Free food is not a solution to hunger, merely a temporary stop-gap in the midst of a crisis. Focusing on the person who eat the food should be the primary focus of any program. Communities, no matter the level of need, are not dumping grounds for corporate tax breaks, nor are they there to alleviate societal guilt over food waste.

A meal made with wholesome ingredients, a little skill, and a focus on the eater can profoundly alter a person’s day and mental outlook.

Food Rescue + Food Justice

In an effort to reduce food waste and get more food to those who need it, several initiatives have been developed. These initiatives are often described as food rescue.

Reducing food waste is an important issue, but it does not necessarily follow that unwanted food should go to people who are hungry. Pastry donations are a good example of that. Dealing with issues of wasted food and focusing on the delivery, nutrition, and hence mental health of marginalized communities are not necessarily related. Some of the solutions being developed to eliminate food waste do not address the needs of those who are food insecure. This does not create a just and sustainable food system.

The pastry sums up all that is broken in the charitable food system. This does not discount the benevolent intentions behind donors. But it also does nothing to address the core issues of poverty and food insecurity.

We need to find a middle ground – somewhere in between the helpful and the unhelpful. At the very least, and in the short term, I’m advocating for pastries served on a clean plate with a side of fruit.


Anna Cavouras

AnnaAnna Cavouras is a writer and community researcher with a background in social work and community development. Being an activist in food justice, she has done everything from working at a low-cost produce market to policy work at the municipal level.

Her current interest is food justice as it related to mental health and learning.

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One Reply to “Anna Cavouras | Opinion: Muffin Crumbs – the complicated case of free food and mental health”

  1. Great post. I think we need to move in different directions. I am involved with two parishes, one of which gives a way a lot of free food. The person in charge is retiring and the hope is that this will be part of a change to a more nutrition focused offering of food.

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