Can a $1 breakfast re-nourish dignity?

It's a first in Winnipeg, and maybe also in Canada—at least, nobody I've talked to so far has heard of any other soup kitchen or food bank doing what Agape Table is doing: charging patrons for food.

According to executive director Mark Courtney, the 30-year-old organization, which operates out of All Saints Anglican Church in the city's downtown, is not only trying to provide better meals for people, but also attempting to change the way it relates to its patrons.

"We're trying to change the old model of thinking," says Courtney, "where everyone knows their roles."

By that he means the roles of giver and receiver—where some people always give from excess and others always receive.

In January Agape Table began offering patrons the option of paying $1 for a nutritious two-egg breakfast, instead of getting free food. Some days as many as two-thirds of those who pass through the door choose the egg special; about 15 have signed up for it on a regular basis.

It might seem like a simple thing; it's only a dollar, after all. But, says Courtney, it changes everything. No longer are people recipients of charity—they're customers, and customers have higher expectations and standards.

To illustrate his point, he tells the story of the first time they got an order wrong.

At first, the customer wasn't sure if he could complain. After Courtney told him it was okay, he went on to say he hadn't gotten what he had ordered.

"I apologized and asked how we could make it up to him," Courtney recalls. "Did he want a refund? Should we re-do it?"

The experience was a bit disorienting for both of them, Courtney says, noting that if the meal had been free the man wouldn't have thought to complain. In fact, it might have seemed ungracious. After all, he hadn't paid for it or anything.

"Later I remember thinking that this was fantastic—somebody complained," he says. "It puts a wonderful pressure on us that wasn't there before. We have to get it right."

Courtney is quick to point out that nobody in crisis will go without food or clothing, and they aren't selling donated food—they purchase the food they sell to customers. "We will cover people in crisis, but we want to invite them to move towards something more permanent and sustainable," he says.

In addition to changing the relationship between the soup kitchen and its patrons, Courtney hopes the new program might eventually raise a bit of much-needed revenue for the organization.

"We're running some new plays here," he says, acknowledging that he isn't sure exactly how it will turn out. Yet he's sure he doesn't want to keep doing the "same-old."

Thinking about Agape Table's bold move, I wondered if anything like it is happening anywhere else in Canada. The answer, says Katherine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada, is no—Canadian food banks aren't permitted to sell, trade or barter donated food.

"People who need food should have access to it, at no cost to them," she says.

But what if they did charge a nominal fee for food? With an estimated 800,000 people using food banks across Canada each month, a lot of money could be raised for food banks—all of which face the challenge of raising funds to keep operating.

"Our strategy continues to be one of accessing resources from the community, and giving it away at no cost," says Schmidt. "We are very much still working with that model."

David Northcott, who directs Winnipeg's largest food bank, Winnipeg Harvest, also believes that everyone should have access to food. "There should be a net to catch people when they are out of money and out of options," he says.

At the same time, he's willing to entertain the idea of charging a nominal fee for food to help keep food banks going. "I like the idea of valuing people's help, in person or in cash," he says. "It's worthy of exploring."

In her book Sweet Charity: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, author Janet Poppendick lists some deadly "sins" of food banks and feeding programs, including instability and indignity. Being unstable and undignified may have been acceptable back in the 1980s when food banks were started as a temporary response to an emergency food crisis. Today they are a permanent fixture in society, yet most survive only because of the good graces of donors and volunteers.

At the same time, they have institutionalized a charity model that requires recipients to park their dignity at the door to get food. Is this really the way to address hunger in Canada?

Maybe Agape Table is on to something.

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About the author

John Longhurst is faith page columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. He blogs at On Faith Canada and Making the News Canada