Grocery store gift cards a stepping stone to end food insecurity
A recent study looking at the impact of an organization that gives grocery store gift cards to food-insecure families in Calgary found that the approach reduced household stress, bolstered people’s dignity and autonomy and allowed them to supply their kitchens with food better suited to their needs, which helped reduce food waste.
“This is not a food supply issue, this is an income-based issue,” said Bobbi Turko, executive director of I Can for Kids, the organization researchers studied. “The impact of providing income-based support has a ripple effect. It is dignity, it’s autonomy, it’s choice, it’s diet quality — those are all of the things we’re touching through this type of approach.”
About 18 per cent of Canadians were food-insecure in 2022, according to federal data and the problem has only been getting worse as people are squeezed between stagnant wages or income supports and rising costs for food and rent.
People on fixed incomes like federal disability payments are particularly at risk. This year, the maximum monthly payment at $1,538. According to Living Wage Canada, the living wage for a single person in Calgary in 2022 was more than double that, at $3,733 a month.
Matt* is among those who receive grocery gift cards from the organization. He lost his job managing a homeless shelter seven years ago due to a debilitating form of Tourette’s syndrome that causes him to aggressively yell and swear. He struggles to afford food for himself, his partner, and their three-year-old daughter.
The government disability payments he receives aren’t enough to cover soaring food and housing costs, forcing the family to rely on food banks to eat. While grateful for the food, food banks are “humiliating,” eliminating his ability to choose food and emphasizing his disability. People misunderstand his condition and react negatively to his tics; last year, a man attacked him in front of his daughter.
“It was dangerous, all because of a misunderstanding,” he said. “I hurt because the systems are designed in ways that don’t work for people like me. I bring chaos everywhere I go.”
Desperate to find a safer way to feed his family, a former colleague connected him to I Can for Kids. The organization’s approach of offering grocery gift cards offered some respite from the food bank, allowing him to buy groceries online or in the safer environment of a grocery store. They “really changed things a little,” he said, though high food costs mean he still sometimes relies on food banks or other charities to feed his family.
“Everything is so expensive, and my disability income didn’t go up for the cost of living. It’s really rough because I fear losing my home,” he said. The grocery gift cards allow him to stretch his disability payments enough for savings and to meet other expenses and bills.
The impact of the gift cards extended beyond material benefits, helping him deal with the psychological toll of living with a disability like Tourette’s, he said. His tics are “like little robberies of your agency, all day long,” isolating him and exacerbating his inner “darkness,” he said. The grocery gift cards don’t solve his problems, but they do offer a glimmer of hope.
“Being in a dark place and feeling helpless to get out is really, really shitty,” he said.
Turko acknowledged that gift cards are not a perfect solution. Food insecurity is an income problem, she said. Solving the crisis will take people’s ability to afford food and other necessities, whether through targeted supports or a universal basic income.
But beyond the immediate relief her program offers, she believes the gift cards help shift public perceptions of food insecurity. Instead of redistributing food through charities like food banks or food rescue organizations, the gift card approach can help foster a public “leap in understanding” and trust toward income-based approaches to deal with the crisis.
“We’re taking steps towards proving the power of that income-based support and the ripple effect that income has on a household,” she said. “People need to understand that (income supports) are not just about the people who are receiving the benefit. It’s about all of us — we all benefit when we can lift people out of that situation.”
Still, Matt said that while he supports options like a universal basic income, he would prefer to find a job willing to accommodate his condition. He wants to work — he loved his past jobs and misses the sense of purpose that comes from employment.
“I deserve a good job and the stuff that other people take for granted. But I can’t have it and that’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said.
Note: Matt’s last name was omitted to protect his privacy.