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.