We all know the expression, “beggars can’t be choosers.”

With one month left before Christmas, Downtown Eastside restaurant mogul Mark Brand Inc has launched a meal token program targeting clientele who would like to support people in need. The idea is that the meal token, which goes for $2.25, can be given to panhandlers in place of spare change. Each token is redeemable for a breakfast sandwich at the window of Save-On-Meats, Mark Brand Inc’s only location affordable for those on modest incomes.

The following description of the program is found in the press release announcing the program:

“The Meal Tokens solve the dilemma that many people find themselves in. The reality is that people are hesitant to give money rather than food to people who they see on the street. With the Meal Tokens, donors can rest assured that what they give will be going towards providing much needed sustenance and at the same time, supporting Save on Meats’ social enterprise.”

This press release cuts straight to the core of our society’s distrust of low-income people: those with money believe themselves better equipped to make decisions on behalf of those without money. The “dilemma” that Mark Brand Inc is attempting to solve exists only in minds of people who want to help the materially poor, but can’t move beyond their own ideological training that fosters paternalism.

Decreasing food choices for low-income people

This program denies the agency of Downtown Eastside residents in a context where people already have increasingly few food choices. As the real value of social assistance rates continues to stagnate, the majority of restaurants, including Mark Brand Inc’s enterprises, are out of reach to those on a monthly $610 social assistance budget. Restaurants aside, the Dieticians of Canada have calculated that no best-practice budgeting can stretch a BC social assistance budget to accommodate healthful eating. This is something that low-income people have long been saying, and that participants in Raise the Rates’ Welfare Food Challenge demonstrated this fall.

As a result, the majority of Downtown Eastside residents living on fixed low-incomes already rely heavily on charitable food sources. Charitable food-giving is structurally unequipped to provide adequate nutrition and sustenance for people living in poverty. Part of the reason for this is that it’s a model of food distribution designed without formal accountability and input from those who rely on it. The token sandwich program only perpetuates structural inadequacies of the charity system. It is an extreme example of denying food choice and literally tokenizing the poor.

The real “dilemma” at stake is therefore the one facing the panhandlers who receive these tokens. With each token received and each condo built, you have less self-determination over what you eat — one of the most intimate decisions in your day-to-day life. At the same time, the person giving the token is supposed to be your ally.

Branding gentrification

While the vast majority of DTES residents struggle on incomes that deny them purchasing power, businesses and their Business Improvement Associations have a growing stake in the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside. Mark Brand Inc does not break out of this trend, but repackages it with a charity sandwich used as a marketing strategy to disassociate itself from gentrification. (This is in addition to fact that the company lets one BIA operate out of Save-On-Meats).

Mark Brand Inc isn’t a charity. It is a private business. It has a bottom-line to meet, and purchasers of the tokens are helping consolidate a market for Save-On-Meats. First, like all gift certificates, about 25% of tokens are likely to be unredeemed, becoming pure profit for Brand. Second, building a “charitable” ally-base is essential for a business-plan that depends on distancing itself from the more clear-cut gentrification mandate of the rest of that company’s projects (Boneta, The Diamond, Sharks & Hammers, etc.). While token-purchasing customers are being targeted for their altruism, these same customers will have a harder time speaking against Mark Brand Inc’s role in the gentrification of the neighbourhood.

But it’s important to speak-out against gentrification. Instead of playing into stereotypes about poor people and tokenizing the poor, it’s best to trust and empower all residents to make the best food choices possible for themselves and their families. The saying “beggars can’t be choosers” is not a policy that will get us towards a just and healthy city.

This article first appeared in the Downtown Eastside Right to Food zine.

Peter Driftmier is the Right to Food Initiatives Program Lead at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House and a former sandwich worker at Save-On-Meats.






32 Responses to “Beggars Can’t Be Choosers” with Save-On-Meats’ Sandwich Token

  1. Rider Cooey says:

    Thanks for taking a second look. A couple weeks ago I responded to the first story about this token scam:

    From: rcooey@shaw.ca [mailto:rcooey@shaw.ca]
    Sent: Monday, November 26, 2012 2:33 PM
    To: Colebourn, John (The Province); ProvLetters

    Subject: Charity middleman Does Well persuading suckers to ‘Do Good’

    To the Editor:

    “Save On Meats launches sandwich token system to help feed Vancouver’s poor,” 21 November 2012

    Jesus, why isn’t there more analysis in this story, or in followup stories… There isn’t even much in the Comments. It’s the ultimate in profitable “charity” scams. The holes in this bunko operation are enormous– why do you ignore them?

    For almost zero investment a grifter-entrepreneur collects huge upfront profit + more on the markup + lots of tokens are lost/unused + bought for other uses. Meantime he gets loads of puff-publicity and thoughtless customers load up for Christmas– anxious to support “good works.”

    You’ve uncritically praised and assisted the ultimate in successful bottom-feeding predators. Besides preying on the poor with the usual tokens, he also preys on the gullible “rich.”

    But the truly rich will not be customers, since they can probably spot the scam.
    Rider Cooey

  2. Jordan says:

    So I should ignore this targeted altruism and buy a repackaged sandwich from 7-11 for a beggar? It’s the same deal. Because as a pedestrian (not a social advocate; just a pedestrian, remember) what are my options at that moment? I shouldn’t be vilified for not trusting someone with money, that’s my own business.

    There’s no sense in drawing this Save on Meats program into discussions of the social theory of charity. It’s just a sandwich, let’s not get carried away. This article seems more altruistic than the scheme it’s covering. But to be fair, Save on Meats probably doesn’t deserve as much of the positive attention it’s getting either. And really, they could (should) just give the tokens away.

  3. Alex Tse says:

    I really appreciate your insight and I’m really glad you wrote this article Peter. But I do know there have been cases where I’ve give money to low-income people and they turn around and use it for smokes, candy and pop. And when I find out I feel *really guilty* about having given them money because not only did I just give them money to put harmful, toxic crap into their bodies, but I’ve also subsidized evil corporations in doing so.

    I understand the inherent injustices behind refusing to give money to low-income people, but I always try my best to buy healthy bakery goods for people I see sitting near skytrain stations. Some folks that I’ve become familiar to tell me what is their favourite food from the bakery and I try to get that for them. At least then I don’t feel so bad about what I’ve done.

    It’s difficult.

    • Sean Antrim says:

      The breakfast sandwich isn’t particularly healthy, and Mark Brand Inc. isn’t any different from other corporations. But there’s been so much positive spin on this gets glossed over.

      Peter has another article on food sovereignty, which I think is the direction we need to go: http://themainlander.com/2012/10/29/condos-vs-cottonwood-garden-how-city-halls-viaduct-removal-plan-would-make-it-harder-to-eat-in-the-downtown-eastside/

      There are many projects in the DTES and across the city that posit themselves as being progressive, but are really just out there to make a buck.

    • AH says:

      good lord, get off your high-horse and just offer your mighty change (that is having such a forceful impact on perpetuating corporate america) without any judgment or worry as to how it is being spent. a fucking breakfast sandwich, muffin or V8 juice here and there is not, usually, what these people want or need, nor will these types of things make a ‘healthful’ difference. they usually want drugs, smokes or booze. who cares? whom are they harming, outside of themselves? their lives, their choices.

    • Ladan says:

      Regardless of whether you give someone money, in the end it is their choice/responsibility what they want to do with it. Just like when you decide to buy a case of beer instead of buying something healthy/better for you, it is YOUR choice. The point is, it is NOT up to US to decide what anyone should do with any sort of money that is given to them. You can hope someone will buy food with it, but if someone decides to exchange it for something else, that is not YOUR issue. It’s taking the right away for someone to make their own choice with the money they have & saying “YOU ARE TOO POOR/ADDICTED/HOMELESS to make any decision on how to spend this money, therefore I am going to make the decision for you by giving you this token for cheap sandwich & telling you how to better take care of yourself, while feeling like I made a difference”.

  4. realitycheck says:

    1. massive profits. token cost 2.25. a breakfast sandwich on their menu cost 1.50… That is a 75cent markup on top of a breakfast sandwich which is also a markup from cost.
    2. profit with a publicity spin….
    3. implying that all the homeless, pan handlers, window cleaners are not to be trusted with the money they collect.

    preying on peoples charitable nature for profits.. nothing new here, move along

  5. karen says:

    This totally speaks to me. I no longer worry about where my money goes, if I have some to give. I don’t always make great choices with my money, I sometimes eat junk, and I’m sure some of my money goes into the pockets of those with less than decent decolonized ideals. So why should I be paternal with an adult I don’t know? Because I happen to have some money and they don’t?

    I think this is such a weird thing about money. Because when we have it, we get to make the choices, to self determine, the right to drink booze at expensive bars till we pass out or go home with the wrong person, to buy cars that we drive too fast. If one thinks for a moment about the really crappy decisions that get made by people with money, their own or others, simply because they have access to money, simply because they fit into a system that allows them to earn it …

    Okay. I don’t want to turn this into a rant (yes I do). But if you look at the privilege that people with easy access to cash have to eat right or wrong foods, take drugs or whatever, and then say people who don’t have money can’t do the same? I find that really weird.

    And I think Mark Brand, and the others like him, con themselves into thinking what they are doing is “helping out” so that they can run their businesses without worry about what they are actually doing.

    • karen says:

      As I sit here, I think about what ways people might mishear what I have written above. So for clarification’s sake, I stress the following: I give money when I have it, no questions about how it is used. I don’t think the receiver is going to spend it on poisonous corporate foods, pets, or any other agents of comfort. I know I hate it when someone makes assumptions of me. It would be rather hypocritical of me to do the same to others.

      As for guilt? I’m done with it. My guilt comes from a place of inaction. I’m working on that.

  6. perspective says:

    Y’all need a sense of proportion. If a company is not making a profit then it is losing money. If a business has the guts to not turn anyone away and provide what basically are break-even options to a bunch of customers that are ignored by others, why is it a requirement that they also lose money while doing so?

    I haven’t given money directly to a panhandler for years, because too many times when I did I saw them wasting it on poison or worse, and way way too many times when I first moved here I was conned by some fast talker who took me or a friend for a ride. So I give money to well-organized charities like the United Way and Food Bank instead. I’m just not interested in the insult to injury of seeing money that I had to work for be spent on things that are making people’s lives worse. It’s like the author wants to pretend that addiction isn’t even an issue in the DTES.

    You know what’s still missing from ‘giving at the office’? A human connection. At least with a few sandwich tokens in my pocket I can honestly look a hungry person in the eyes and give them a measure of relief, with a meal that I personally find quite tasty and healthy.

    At the margin, the sandwich token will stimulate some extra private charity and direct engagement where it isn’t happening right now. And that’s where change happens: incrementally, over time, through small acts.Honestly, this article and website reads like a sophomoric joke–the sidebar in the top right corner says you don’t take money from “Super PACs” [sic]? No shit… PACs don’t exist in Canada.

  7. Grant says:

    On one hand, it is quick, easy and fun to criticize the clearly misguided Mark Brand. Yes, the tokens are ultimately no better than thinly-veiled promotion for his restaurant, and yes, they disenfranchise those given the tokens by forcing them to eat at Save on Meats. It makes for great opportunities for individuals to write op-ed pieces and for others to share them to Facebook, as I have seen many do, often with the poorly articulated armchair commentary that accompanies it (and of which this comment is a part, admittedly).

    However, I find it difficult to imagine either the columnist or any one of the above commentators, standing outside of Save on Meats (not that they would be seen anywhere near the place, of course) and explaining to some hungry someone that no food (especially breakfast sandwiches) is better than some food if said food has been tainted with the dirty hands capitalism. As usual, this article is quick to criticize x without suggesting viable alternatives y or z. Vague plans for the socialist overthrow of the DTES or criticisms of models for charity do not count. If Brand’s project is unsavory, then what would a savory (or at least nearly as savory as one of those steaming hot sandwiches) project look like? I hope there’s an organic food truck involved somehow.

    The ultimate end to Brand’s project will be determined by the market, just as the market has in effect created his project. It will depend on (1) whether customers of Save on Meats actually buy the tokens, (2) whether they actually distribute them in lieu of cash, (3) whether people take them, and (4) whether (and this is the most important step) people actually use them in exchange for food. Step 1 is most likely to happen, Steps 2-3 somewhat less likely, and 3 the least likely. So, Brand has created something of a false economy where money is exchanged for tokens that very likely won’t be exchanged into food again, creating greater profit. The curse of the gift card economy. And that’s where I hope the project stops. Now will anyone please, please suggest something better?

  8. KG says:

    Are there any other organizations in the city with similar programs?

  9. Sarah says:

    “However, I find it difficult to imagine either the columnist or any one of the above commentators, standing outside of Save on Meats (not that they would be seen anywhere near the place, of course) and explaining to some hungry someone that no food (especially breakfast sandwiches) is better than some food if said food has been tainted with the dirty hands capitalism.”

    Sorry – could you clarify? You seem to be saying that it is an either/or proposition – that people will either … actually, no, the above paragraph is just an insulting straw man. I wouldn’t assume things about where people will and will not “:be seen.” The audience of this paper has a strong representation of people who live and work in the DTES.

    And you’re falling into the trap of chiding criticism for not suggesting an alternative. There’s no logical reason to do so – only emotive. The “alternative” to this empty-headed marketing program is, of course, systemic and institutional change. But you don’t have to present a viable option to recognize this program is another symptom of paternalistic profiteering off the poor.

  10. Wes says:

    Hey Peter, Hastings Crossing BIA gave our notice to Mark recently and have moved to the HiVE where we look forward to having a lot more community events and dialogue around what’s happening in the DTES. If you’re ever curious to know more about the work we’re doing to foster a more inclusive local economy and make sure we aren’t simply an agent for gentrification be in touch. Happy to grab a coffee. Wes

  11. JAI says:

    “Paternalistic profiteering off the poor” — it seems to me that is the status quo in the DTES. Whether that profiteering is the spiritual salvation of missionary work; salaries and government payouts to service providing organizations; or political capital and power…. Everyone is in it for something, and the cynicism of this post is pretty lopsided.

    The owner of Save-on-Meats certainly isn’t obliged to provide any kind of charitable outreach, so why exactly are they being singled out? Where is the indictment of the Food Bank? Where’s the indictment of the myriad of religious charities that solicit donations, particularly at this time of year, offering to feed and ‘save’ the poor?

    Arguing for social justice and raising the welfare rates is one thing / arguing that any kind of charity is a paternalistic construct is the kind of bourgeoise college drivel that belies the luxury of not having to actually rely on charity oneself.

  12. Yes, this Christmas the white man shall bring gifts of flour, lard and salt to Canada’s shores. That’ll fix everything. Why didn’t we think of this sooner?!?

  13. Stephen says:

    Basically, I think feeding the poor is good. A pretty prolific DTES activist once told me it made them uncomfortable when other activists devalue and stigmatize poor people’s acceptance of things that might be of immediate benefit to their health or safety. I also think the token is easier than carrying around a sandwich with the intention of being asked for food. It allows people to simply flip beggars the token and be on their way without having someone accompany them to the shop who makes them uneasy, or worrying their money will be used for drugs. It might be an uncomfortable reality, but that’s the way many people feel when asked for change.

    Therefore, why don’t activists put pressure on MORE businesses to do exactly the same thing? That way, if people are uncomfortable with Brand in particular drumming up business and good press for himself with what seems like a superficial gesture, people passing on the street who feel struck by a moment of charity can give someone else their business, thus benefiting the poor and providing whatever sense of self-satisfaction comes from charity consumerism.

    It doesn’t solve all the social problems or contribute to a greater good. But if activists can argue harm reduction, though a statistical failure, is a success for every single life saved…then by the same logic, giving someone in need a way to eat is more helpful in the moment than responding to with “I’ll write a cheque to the food bank for you.”

    • Can you clarify your statement that harm reduction is a “statistical failure”? It is my understanding that all the evaluations of InSite and its associated harm reduction strategy have praised the work done there. Is it not the case that scientific evidence supporting harm reduction was found compelling by the Supreme Court of Canada? Did they not rule against the federal government’s efforts to terminate the program and unanimously endorse the right of access to harm reduction programs? And in so ruling did they not write the following:

      “During its eight years of operation, Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada.”

  14. Great to see this written and and all the conversations – digital as they may be.

    One thing for sure.
    The idea that we are separate and not connected is the construct of this warped society. Joe citizen in this grossly greedy capitalist patriarchy colonial society. Blah!

    Certainly my posting and perhaps even the story here is not just about oppression olympics. (such a terrible term)

    I believe that Marc is really lost in his ideologies, like many in this society.

    Everyone and everything is political. Separation is deflection of responsibility.

    We are all oppressive – me included. Perhaps some of the difference is, I am working diligently on mine and helping others as well!


  15. Marcy Toms says:

    Dear Peter

    Absolutely spot on article. (Let me buy you a beer or two!) And, of course, hiding beneath this is the self-righteous moralizing that divides the poor into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ while never applying the same standard to the rich. The bottom line is that Canadians live in a very wealthy society, but increasingly, that wealth is held by an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. In the 1950s and 60s, the rich and the corporations paid considerably more in taxes than they do now, and Canadians began to create a more fair and just society. This project was rudely interrupted in the late 1970s, and after years of sliding, we now confront a situation that is unnecessary, immoral and out-of-control. Food banks (established here in BC in 1983, as a temporary measure to deal with the human tragedy of the Socred New Reality budget), frantic fundraising and relying on charity to fund various social programs are not marks of a particularly caring or altruistic society. Neither is the handout of a sandwich token. I’m not a cynic, but this seems to me a peculiar and cynical exercise, and I am reinforced in this belief by the number of comments which complain about the food and lifestyle ‘choices’ of the poor. Really? In terms of taste, I’ll take the temporary respite of a popsicle purchased with a panhandled loonie over Donald Trump’s gold faucets and shameless combover any day. The growing outpouring of charity in the midst of conspicuous riches references the feudal obligations of the upper class (hence ‘nobless oblige’) and signals backwardness, not progress. What do we want, a return to 1347? All reputable research shows that reforms such as universal school breakfast programmes, a Living Wage initiative, a Guaranteed Annual Income, and national housing and child care programs (to name a few) benefit society as a whole as well as those who are poor. Indeed, they create the social scaffolding that is most likely to ensure increased and sustained well being for those most in need. These and other reforms are a matter of political will, and it is long past time for federal, provincial and civic political parties to develop and put in place comprehensive plans to ensure that society does, indeed, progress past the new feudalism.

  16. James says:

    I personally think that this is a good thing. This didn’t just jump out of a PowerPoint presentation by some haywire think-tank of over-educated yuppies; this is a reactionary supply to a demand – in a colourful arena where everything is being given a chance.

    Furthermore, to add to what Grant said about the e-pundits that this has attracted (PS – bravo, writer) – on top of being comfortably disassociated with the arena that this subject battles daily in, I don’t picture any or all of the above comments to be typed out by hands that are either involved in social entrepreneurship, or the food service industry.

    So there’s a 75 cent charge for the pilot program on each token? Ever seen how much administrative charges are for charities, non-profit organizations, and non-government organizations? Go look at those numbers, behind a number of organizations that many accept as invaluable to our country and culture. Back on track – how much were the tokens? What will the costs of inevitably-lost tokens cost? How much for the posters? Flyers? How about the labour to organize it, communicate it (print, tweet, etc. + media interviews that all comes out of already-busy schedules), and sustain it? Judge like it’s your job but don’t ask yourself these contextual questions? Shame.

    This is a pilot project, involving a man and his team, knee-deep in the trenches of an issue that it has no choice but to deal with as a business. If it’s not an end in itself, which it most likely isn’t, then it’s a means to one. If you don’t have anything nice to say, go to a bar and pay one of this city’s fine barkeeps to listen to you. Respect to the program.

  17. Steve says:

    Some of the most beautiful locations of the country have been gentrified out of reach to all but multi-millionaire thieves. Mr. Brand would doubtlessly scoff at eating one of his UN-nutritious and morally negating sandwiches, and most definitly supports the “improvements” to the downtown core. Why does he get to profit off “helping” the poor when many of them would gladly GIVE the shirt off their backs just to improve someone-else’s day. One can’t trust a homeless person to spend the money you give them to improve their situation, but you can be assured that they won’t spend it in the pursuit of profit at the expense of society and the environment.

  18. Luch says:

    poor people or not, I can’t decide for others, such as I can’t force a donation credit to someone as a Christmas gift, instead of a watch that that person really wants (not needs). If someone appreciates a pack of smokes more than a sandwich…then you ask yourself why do you want to give in the first place, is it ALL about making yourself feel good?

  19. Woodwards Building (SRO), yes the social housing part.. says:

    The token idea is a great idea,! Its amazing how this city is full of complainers, and people or should I say so called ” Hipsters” that love to use big words. I would never give money to know one down, because , yes, I do not trust where, or support where most of the money is spent. I actually cannot wait for this are to be ” gentrified ” as you people call it all the time. I hear allot of big words, and allot of protesting in my area. But I rarely see allot of action. By the way if you truly want to be a ” hipster” got to Wicker park !!, and stop feeling sorry for everyone down here.

    • Peter Driftmier says:

      I’ve tried to not weigh in to the conversation other than direct one person to link that related to their comment, as I’ve already stated my position- take it or leave it.
      But I have to say, do you think all journalists or public affairs commentators are hipsters because they have something critical to say using big words, such as that which there is no other word for- like gentrification? It’s not a word that we happen to use- it’s the word for it. The City of Vancouver and a whole host of recognized institutions use the word.
      I didn’t include direct quotes in my article from any of the many people who panhandle that I work with every day about these very issues – their self-determination in deciding what food goes in their bodies. But every one of them I’ve asked their opinion of have had a similar stance as myself. So I wouldn’t say that this is about “feeling sorry” for people who panhandle at all- if you took that from my article I’d have to say that you generously misread it.

  20. John D says:

    Great article Peter,

    You’ve opened up a solid debate. Personally, I don’t see any difference between handing out the Save on Meats gift certificate, or a gift certificate to a Tim Horton’s, a vegan deli, or a nice coffee shop. Either way, you’re making an assumption about the recipient’s tastes, but the core idea is that you’re giving a gift that could potentially mean the difference between someone eating breakfast or not on a particular day.

    Also, the power is still in the recipients hand to use it, trade it, or sell it. After all, don’t we all do that with gift certificates we’re given at this time of the year.

    I also have no problems with this being run by private business for profit. In fact, I would prefer that the business in question be a locally owned and operated business, and not a large foreign owned corporate chain.

    And yes to a previous readers comments. The act of giving in person is much more human and gratifying than making a donation to a charitable organization.

    Maybe Save on Meats should offer more options than just breakfast sandwiches.

    Also… I was reminded of this classic Seinfeld clip… The Muffin Tops.

  21. KP says:

    My choice to decide if I want to leave them change or a token. And I’m gonna leave them a token.

  22. KP says:

    I used to give people spare change. Now, I buy them food. Why?

    Years ago, a pandhandler downtown asked me for change to buy “cereal, bread and milk, oh and a bowl too… and some cheese”.

    At the time, I was a student getting by on minimum wage, so, I wasn’t gonna buy it all for him. So, I told him, “Hey, I’ll buy you the bread and cheese”. And I started to walk to the nearest store downtown.

    This guy follows me for 3 blocks, pestering me to just give him the money, as he didn’t want me to waste my time. I told him that I was meeting someone in 25 min., so I had time. He then told me he didn’t want to buy his meal in pieces, as it would be inconvenient to him (how???) I told him that I wasn’t going to give him money, but he was having none of it. Eventually, I told him that he could have my offer, or none of it. He threw up his hands angrily, and walked off.

    Compare that with the time I was walking back from the store with a loaf of bread. A panhandler asked me for change. Instead of that, I gave him half my loaf of bread. He was grateful, and when I passed him later on, he was still munching away.

    It’s disgusting what an entitled attitude many have today, rich and old. New workforce entrants demand $25 an hour to start. The rich don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes. And now, advocates for the poor are looking for the flimsiest of reasons to malign Save-on-Meats and claim that people that give money to the poor have no right to tell them how to spend it? WRONG. If we decide we do not want to give change to people that may spend it on unhelpful endeavors, that is morally and legally A-OK.

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