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.
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.