[Updated] Homeless Food Tokens Are Coming To Toronto- Are They Really A Good Idea?


Last November marked the launch of a project to feed the poor that’s innovative as it is controversial. Mark Brand, the owner of Vancouver’s Save-On-Meats began selling sandwich tokens for the poor. People buy the tokens from Save-On, they can then hand them out to people in need, and each token can be exchanged for a hot sandwich from Save-On’s take-out window. I’ve eaten one of their sandwiches- mine was a greasy heart-attack inducing egg and meat based concoction, not so healthy, but still rather satisfying.

People who back the use of food tokens tell us that they will encourage people who wouldn’t usually give money to the poor to change their habits. Those who worry the money would be used for drugs, alcohol, or other ‘unacceptable’ purposes can rest-assured their gift will be used for food.

Those who are against tokens rightly say that they could be viewed as patronizing and undignified. Equally, they worry there’s too-much profit motive on behalf of the restaurants who issue them, and the schemes aren’t as charitable as they appear on the surface…

Rodney Bowers, the owner of Toronto’s Hey Meatball and Hey! restaurants is in the process of implementing a similar scheme in Parkdale in Toronto. The main difference appears to be that Bowers wants to focus on the food being more healthy. Whether the recipients would prefer something healthy, or a hearty heart-attack sandwich is up for debate. If Bowers decided to only serve bean sprout sandwiches would this be a form of oppression? These are the kinds of questions being pondered.

Nobody likes having people make decisions for them. If you’re homeless, and living through the horror of the shelters (crime, drugs, bedbugs…) you’re already living under a pretty restrictive regime. Shelter spaces open and close at specific times, if you’re not at the line-up for shelter in-time you may find yourself having to sleep outside. In that case you’d probably be happy to have a food-token- but, equally, you may feel humiliated someone didn’t trust you to make your own decisions.

Food tokens make a lot of sense for the restaurants. First, they’ll sell more sandwiches than they would have otherwise. They also get a lot of free publicity for their efforts. The mainstream media eats this stuff up- token schemes couldn’t be a better PR tool if they were intended to be. (As they arguably are)

Like gift cards, not all food tokens will actually be redeemed- it’s inevitable some  tokens will be lost, and some taken out of circulation by collectors. Will the restaurant owners be handing any of that money back to the community, or will they keep that as part of their profit? It’s perfectly within their rights to keep the money- the decision is theirs to decide how charitable their ventures will be. One would hope that that they’ll consider the publicity to be profit enough.

Save-on also have a program to work with the Vancouver police. People can donate tokens that VPD homeless liaison officers then hand-out to people in need. This program must certainly gain them some favour with the police.

One of the things that people value in our society is the freedom to choose. Granted, when one is homeless, it’s a given that one will have less options in their life. But, is it truly being charitable if the gift you’re giving is based on distrust? What sort of message is that sending? As a wise woman said to me today- if you are considering solutions for the homeless, the most humane way is to consider how you’d feel in their shoes.

Personally, I worry about what will happen the first time someone gets really offended after being given a token. I used to live in the DTES and I’ll never forget the day I accidentally bumped into a homeless man and he responded threatening “Next time I’ll stab you with my rig” (his needle). Those words resonate through my head to this day- I’d hate to be the first person that happened to.

People in Vancouver tell me Mark Brand appears to have genuine intent to help people in his community- it’s hard to fault him for trying to make things better. That said, the distrust built into the scheme may cause people to feel offended or degraded. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that myself.

Even better than relieving your conscience by throwing a couple of dollars at someone- why not write to your political representative and ask that welfare rates are fixed. It’s next to impossible to have a healthy diet with the small amounts of money people are being given these days.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.genuinewitty.com/2013/02/20/homeless-food-tokens-are-coming-to-toronto-are-they-really-a-good-idea/


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    • mollymcevil on February 20, 2013 at 23:06
    • Reply

    when someone says.. can i have some change to get food and you give them something that gets them a meal.. how is that distrust? most people when giving change probably don’t give as much as 2.50 but one small wooden token gets them a meal.

    1. What if that person needs a phone card to call home, or they’re short on rent money and need a little extra? The sandwich token implies that people won’t spend the money responsibly. I can see the value of donating some to shelters or police liaisons being a good idea. But it’s a lot less effort to give them a toonie, and it’s a bit more dignified too…

        • mollymcevil on February 20, 2013 at 23:27
        • Reply

        then say i need to make a call.. short on rent.. ect.. or like the old guy in gas town.. money for beer. but if you say your hungry and need food.. getting given a token for food is not an isult.. it’s getting what you asked for.
        heck if they say they need a phone card to call home, someone may give them one. or point them to one of the places that will let them make long distance calls to reconnect with family.

        1. I’d have a hard time giving one to someone my self- I’d sooner give them the money. If I were in their place I’d appreciate both equally, but it would feel more trusting if someone gave me some money. Perhaps not from the police, or one of the shelters that are giving them out, that seems like a good thing to me. But, on a person-to-person basis, the tokens seem to take away some of the humanity…

          Oh, yeah, getting increases in welfare rates is something that’s well beyond due. One great way to help is for people to contact their political representatives and show your support for some increases. It’s unbelievable what people are expected to live on.

  1. If there are “better ways” I’d like to see them presented here, and I do not mean that flippantly.

    We’re not talking about grand social engineering initiatives here, but a simple person-to-person helping hand. Those of us who have resolved the issue for ourselves by never giving change to beggars (let’s use plain English here) but whenever possible offering to buy them something to eat have discovered that a good half of the time the offer is declined. Fair enough, the asker has his or her priorities, and I have mine.

    As a fellow human being I must respond to anyone’s genuine needs, but don’t expect me to feel obliged to support their mere wants. I am fully capable of and experienced in making my own bad decisions and can barely afford to support my own habits.

    The only “better ways” that I can think of, that wouldn’t be a further erosion of my freedom to decide who and how I will help in a moment of need, involve doubling the welfare rates, trebling the development rate of truly affordable housing, creating a portable housing subsidy program that would enable the recipients to live where they chose and break out of the poverty ghettos, and curing the scourge of addiction.

    These are all laudable projects, but while we work on them let’s not become obsessed with deconstructing the politics of one person saying to another “here, get yourself something to eat” and handing them a redeemable token, whether it be issued by the federal government or the local deli.

    Ideally all forms of “charity” would be unnecessary, so of course the sandwich tokens initiative is far from ideal. But on balance I think it is a good thing. And those who don’t want to buy and give tokens, and those who don’t want to accept them, are under no obligation either way.

    1. I see what you are saying- and your points are all very valid. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot since I first hear about the tokens- and I like the idea on several levels. It’s just, it does feel a bit patronizing to me. I’m in no way implying that the tokens shouldn’t be given out- only that I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving them.

      As for a better solution, perhaps vouchers that could be used at a selection of restaurants/stores? It’s more complex and would take more effort- perhaps this could be a stepping-stone to that.

      • rraefyn on February 21, 2013 at 04:11
      • Reply

      Of course there are better ways, Kevin, which you have outlined here. The problem I’m having with the whole concept is the implied message it’s sending. Living in poverty is all about not having much in the way of choice. Not in where you live, or what you eat. Whether it’s through addiction, (which by the way, is often the after effect of poverty and not strictly the gateway) or being physically or mentally unemployable, life happens and people fall through the cracks.

      Trust me, to any one living in poverty it’s not too far along the road that they get the message loud and clear that as far as society at large is concerned, they are less than shit. Most of society believes that the poor must forfeit their right of choice in even the barest necessities because they don’t contribute. After all, no matter how you fell on, stumbled or dropped into poverty row, you must in some measure have asked for it. At least that’s the message I’ve observed when it comes to the homeless and poor. I think Greg’s reference to Mark Brand’s supporters states it quite plainly.

      “People who back the use of food tokens tell us that they will encourage people who *WOULDN’T* usually give money to the poor to change their habits. Those who worry the money would be used for drugs, alcohol, or other ‘unacceptable’ purposes can rest-assured their gift will be used for food.” Capitals mine*

      Why wouldn’t they normally give money to the poor?? Why is it that those in a position to give, generally don’t? Is it as stated, their reticence to contribute to peoples self abuse? Or is it something more insidious? I think they’ve bought the lie. Oh sure, they hide behind the drugs, and alcohol excuses for keeping their wallets closed but seriously they don’t give a shit plain and simple. They get righteously indignant that they have to spend two cents on these “bums”. Their tax dollars are already being wasted on these lazy louts. They scorn any person who is not a responsible member of society no matter what circumstances have brought them there. They consider them tax vampires and leeches. No matter how many times/ways it’s been proven that corporate welfare costs the taxpayer millions more than social services it’s always the same. Society needs a scapegoat and the crony government provides one and the middle class propagate the lie. Every time there is a new austerity measure proposed, guess who feels the first cut. The least able among us are left to weather the storm. How’s that for a compassionate society…

      Try to imagine what kind of a toll that would take on any ones psyche after years of grinding poverty and struggle. There will always be a fraction of our society that will forever be un~employable and in need and rather than help them we stigmatize and scorn them. What kind of society do we live in that kicks a dog when it’s down. This present one, methinks.

      I hate this token of a token. Why not further erode the marginal self esteem and dignity they might still possess by sending them this little reminder token. Here dog. have a crumb from the masters table and be off with you! I’m disgusted.

      1. I think “rraefyn” that you assume a great deal about other people’s thoughts, beliefs, motives and attitudes, both the haves and the have-nots, and paint everyone with a very broad brush.

        Perhaps your statement “Oh sure, they hide behind the drugs, and alcohol excuses for keeping their wallets closed but seriously they don’t give a shit plain and simple.” is the most outstanding, though certainly not the only, example of your breathtaking assumptions about the inner lives of others.

        I wonder what your take is on the individual (sometimes me) who will come out of a fast-food outlet with an extra burger and fries for the person sitting outside the door with his cap on the sidewalk and a goofy cardboard sign asking for help? Is this also insulting because he is being deprived of the right to chose onion rings instead of fries?

        If you don’t like tokens give toonies, but don’t impute malicious motives to those who choose otherwise.

        • Standing Water on February 21, 2013 at 14:09
        • Reply

        “Why wouldn’t they normally give money to the poor?? Why is it that those in a position to give, generally don’t? Is it as stated, their reticence to contribute to peoples self abuse? Or is it something more insidious? I think they’ve bought the lie. Oh sure, they hide behind the drugs, and alcohol excuses for keeping their wallets closed but seriously they don’t give a shit plain and simple.”

        I am sorry, you are wrong. I have given in the past, and I might give again, but not to certain individuals because I don’t just give the money and carry on. I tend to have a little chat. Of every beggar (not homeless, neither was homeless) who has chatted with me, this is the pattern that has emerged: the beggar is on social assistance, at the lowest rung or (in some cases) at the highest level of disability assistance, such that he has assisted living, three square hot meals a day and _spending money_ given to him daily. I mean, my own mother never cooked me three hot meals a day when I was a kid, let alone being an adult getting that…not shabby, if you know how to be appreciative.

        So, what did one fellow on the total package beg for? Because that spending money wasn’t enough to get him his desired amount of cocaine-money each day, which was, of course, “as much as I can scam!” Do I feel a strong desire to subsidize the cocaine-sellers of Vancouver? Not really. And what’s worse, this guy will leave his hot meals sitting in his living facility so that he can go beg for crack-money. Now, this is a fellow with clearly profound mental problems: he said in one breath “I use the money to buy rock.” In the next, he denied that he used the money to buy rock. He clearly runs on fumes—but that’s nobody’s fault but his own. He has nutritious meals available, he chooses not to eat them, to seek crack instead. If his self-esteem is in the gutter, it is not my fault. It is not grinding poverty’s fault. It is his fault. Part of having healthy self-esteem is having a self worthy of esteem. Someone who turns up his nose at hot food to go scam money for crack is a loathsome creature not worthy of any esteem by right-thinking folk. At most you can say “he’s sick with a disease called addiction.” Fair enough. He made some bad investments, got into debt—not my fault, and I refuse to feel an imposed sense of guilt over his situation.

        And my issue isn’t caring whether or not someone is a cokehead—the issue is scamming people on false pretenses. If you can afford it, stay as high as you like, kids, ain’t nobody’s business if you do! But had I never engaged in conversation, I never would have learned the truth about this guy—he’s a grifter, a conman. And, sorry, I don’t accept that being poor is a license to be scum and that it’s all society’s fault. Scamming people is scamming people, and it’s wrong.

        Sandwich tokens are a good idea, but they’re not really a solution to the overall problem. But raising the welfare rates isn’t going to help. You give buddy $40 a day instead of $20, that just means he starts scamming for crack at 11am instead of 10am.

        “Try to imagine what kind of a toll that would take on any ones psyche after years of grinding poverty and struggle.”

        I have a somewhat radical thesis: if someone can beg on the street, someone can be employed, it is a matter of making a job for him—that is what provides true self-esteem and dignity, gainful employment, not charity of any sort. Indeed, I think welfare should provide a full-time-work for full-time-pay option. But if you do that, the welfare cases can unionize and then that min. wage full-time work becomes union work—it’s a sticky situation with no easy answers at a population level.

        But at the individual level, the answer is different. At the individual level, we must have the view that everyone can work and that the problem is lack of an appropriate job for an individual with special needs. If you really want to destroy someone’s self-esteem, make him think he is unemployable completely, no matter what he does. And, “rraefyn”, you seem to be the one suggesting that most strongly here.

          • rraefyn on February 23, 2013 at 07:13
          • Reply

          Thanks for confirming my observation on how street people are perceived.The idea that every one is capable of working plays into the very reasons that the homeless are not taken care of. Why is it so impossible for people to accept that there are people incapable of working for various reasons. Why is there such resentment for them?

          I’ve struggled to maintain jobs my entire life because of my disability. I’ve been shuffled through disability job program scams that inevitably paid the agency and left me with a resume and nothing else to show for it. I’ve worked jobs that have inevitably made my condition worse and rendered me crippled and in physiotherapy for months. At times I’ve found myself homeless and hungry and still I never wanted to accept that I might not be capable of working because the alternative is receiving the kind of scorn and prejudice you have stated in your comment. Not all homeless people don’t want to work, not all people on welfare are there for the free handouts. Some of us have needs that aren’t so easily met by what the government allots.

          Living in poverty, being scrutinized like you are a criminal is not any way for a person to live. Having most of my rights stripped away because I am beholden as a ward of the state. That’s the price you pay for not being a working person. I know I should be grateful right?

          If a person is on the street there are many reasons why and none of them are because they want to be. The life expectancy for a street person is five years. Do you actually believe that a person wakes up one day and says hey…I need a new lifestyle choice, I think I’ll try homelessness.

          There’s infinite joy in sleeping on heater grates and dumpster diving, let me tell you. Not to mention the perks you receive when you lose your last shred of dignity as a human being when you have to go cap in hand looking for handouts for basic necessities when the government makes a new cut back.

          Ya it’s popular to punish the poor and the addicted because they are easy scapegoats. The government encourages and deliberately shifts your focus so they can divert you from the real crimes like corporate welfare. You know those white collar criminal corporations who owe millions in back taxes that you the tax payer have to cover every time you fill out your tax returns.

    • mollymcevil on February 21, 2013 at 14:43
    • Reply

    The tokens are one business man’s idea to help people in his community.. just imagine if everyone came up with just one thing, however little, that helped them make a difference? it doesn’t have to be helping the down trodden.. it could be a simple thing like lobbying to have all the interac machine standardized to make it easier for blind people. or i dunno painting a pig on a little disk so that people can give without fear and receive with gratitude. i was recently a starving student.. man these would have been nice to get.
    so can we not pick on one person who got off their ass and found a way to make a difference.. but look at ourselves, and find that thing in us we can do.

    • rraefyn on February 23, 2013 at 06:28
    • Reply

    “Kevin”, I think your benevolence in buying a homeless person a hamburger is an lovely act of kindness. However I can say from experience that you are the exception to the rule. The majority of people who see a homeless person soliciting money shake their heads in disgust and give a wide berth to the untouchables

    That said, I don’t think I’m making sweeping generalizations as you alluded. I was specifically referring to the comment made by Brands supporters about those people who would not give money. I know of what I speak and and my previous comment about them stands. How do I know how they feel about the homeless..well,, maybe it’s because I’ve had plenty of distasteful experiences having them vociferously and loudly proclaim their opinions in public, in my family my circle of friends and in many other settings. If you wish to believe that I am generalizing go and ask people yourself. If people are so benevolent then why is homelessness an issue at all? Wouldn’t a benevolent and giving society take care of it’s marginalized and disabled with dignity providing adequate food and shelter for them? Why isn’t that happening. Surely if there were that many kind people voting for changes it would be eradicated by now right?

    When I give money to a homeless person I’m not the one assuming it’s strictly going to drugs and alcohol. After it leaves my hand where it goes is where it goes. I don’t give it with a caveat that says I’ll give this to you only on the condition that you spend it how I think you should. That’s not a charitable act it’s a an oblige.

    I bet it would surprise many to hear that many times a homeless person is pan handling not just strictly for themselves. They who are homeless and penniless take care of their own. I’ve witnessed a group of pan handlers solicit money to buy a bus ticket home for a dying Innuit with aids. I’ve had homeless people save treats for my son from the food bank and offer me bus tickets when I needed to take him to the doctor. I knew a man who was homeless who pan handled money outside a local bank for med’s for his stage three cancer because he had no address and could not receive a drug card for med’s. It didn’t matter the drug card did not cover his expensive drugs anyway.I could tell you dozens of stories but that’s for another thread.

    There are plenty of places where a homeless person can get food in T.O. I know I’ve been to all of them at one time or another.Churches,Fred Victor Mission,Scott Mission, Osgoode Hall, Friars Table, Parc,Food banks and many mental health drop ins. When you’re hungry and homeless you learn the route for getting food. Homelessness is the bigger issue here. Adequate affordable housing is what needed.

    • missdianehilarycleatorborn1955 on February 25, 2013 at 17:41
    • Reply

    anythinng that is NOT cash will get sold for a discounted amount OF cash so they can get what they want . have a nice day .

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