This November Mark Brand, the Downtown Eastside gentrifying restaurateur, entrepreneur and enfant terrible behind the Save On Meats cultural engine celebrated on the western Canada lecture circuit, launched $2.25 breakfast sandwich tokens to “provide nutritious food to those in need.”
Brand is marketing his breakfast tokens as charity. But charity is when relatively well-off individuals or social groups give money, food, and other resources to low-income people at only the cost of gratitude and swallow the cost themselves. On December 7 low-income people and groups critical of charity will march on CBC during their annual food bank day to demand social justice not individual charity. The philosophy of social justice says that the state should compensate low-income people for the poverty they suffer because of social and economic inequality and not be dependent on the whims, conditions, and humiliations of lining up for charity. But Mark Brand’s breakfast sandwich tokens are not a matter of charity, they are a business marketing tool like coupons or gift cards.
Gift cards are a license to print money. US Consumer Reports found that in 2007 around 27% of gift cards went unused; that retailers collected around $8Billion in straight cash that would never be redeemed in merchandise. In an article in the Province newspaper Brand says he has printed 10,000 breakfast sandwich tokens to start with, to handle the holiday season – which, coincidentally, is the time of year when charity-food overflows the streets of the DTES so much that it goes to waste. How many of these 10,000 $2.25 tokens will go unredeemed when they can only be exchanged for a single product during certain times of day, from a single location, when given to strangers as an act of individual charity during this time of charity overdose in the DTES? And how many will go unredeemed because the tokens can only be redeemed at the sidewalk sandwich counter and not sitting inside the restaurant? Will Brand open his books and show how many he has calculated will go unredeemed and how much he stands to profit?
But just because his tokens are not charitable Brand has not lost the opportunity to absorb the worst and most humiliating aspects of charity into his breakfast token program. A write-up posted on the Save On Meats website claims “the meal tokens solve the dilemma that many people find themselves in.” But they are not talking about poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity, inequality or gentrification; they are talking about the dilemma faced by people who are “hesitant to give money rather than food to people they see on the street.” Like the charity parking meters set up by the city to discourage panhandling, the message of Brand’s tokens is that low-income people cannot be trusted with money of their own.
The solution to problems of poverty, malnutrition and health crises in the Downtown Eastside are not to be found at the Save On Meats sandwich counter because they cannot be solved by clever marketing campaigns. Social and economic inequality is a material problem and it needs fundamental change. If restaurateurs like Brand want to help they can begin by supporting low-income community-led campaigns for higher taxes on businesses and higher income people, higher incomes for people on welfare and in low-wage jobs, and social justice not charity.