Food banks deal with recession

July 17, 2009 at 7:30 am (News)

This week we published a feature I wrote on how Ottawa food banks are dealing with the recession. Across the city, demand has generally increased and so far, supply has gone up as well. That might not be the case as more job cuts and slashed hours hit formerly faithful donors. Here’s my story on the current situation:

It’s Wednesday morning, and the usual army of workers is in formation at the Kanata Food Cupboard. A couple dozen volunteers spend hours sorting donations, boxing up cans and stacking food – tons of it.

Iris Steg stocks shelves with a smile at the Kanata Food Cupboard.

Iris Steg stocks shelves with a smile at the Kanata Food Cupboard.

Quiet chatter bounces around the large rooms, which seem to shrink as food donations are heaped on the floor and fill the shelves. The volunteers, who have all become friends as they work for a shared goal, return every week, establishing a routine and taking responsibility for a sorting station or type of food to shelve.

The 600-plus force that serves the Kanata Food Cupboard is well-trained and devoted.

And extremely necessary.

As the recession sweeps across the country, hundreds of people in Kanata have had hours slashed or given pink slips.

Jim Wiper, chair of the local food bank, said the number of clients asking for help has grown by 20 per cent each month since the spring.

It’s a big jump, he said, adding that they went from serving 140 families each month to more than 180, or nearly 1,000 individuals. Many of them are new, not used to asking for help to put food on the table.

“We knew it was coming,” said client co-ordinator Karen Waters about the increase.

She said layoffs, especially in Kanata’s high-tech sector, have been the largest impact on the need for food bank services. She said even some who previously volunteered at the cupboard are back as clients.

“They used to help us and now we’re helping them,” she said.

Wiper said though the extra demand was anticipated, there wasn’t much they could do to prepare.

“We have to rely on the generosity of the community,” he said.

So far, Kanata residents have continued to give, though there have been times when inventory drops so low that volunteers have to purchase food for the hampers, usually a rare occurrence.

ACROSS THE CAPITAL

But it’s not just Kanata that relies on the neighbourhood to care for the less fortunate among them.

In south Ottawa, there has been a roughly 15 per cent increase in clients in early 2009, compared to last year. Dundas County Food Bank administrator Donna Quesnel said from January to March, they served over 1,300 people – up 200 from the same months in 2008.

In Barrhaven, supply and demand has remained virtually the same over the last several weeks.

“We are still getting a great number of donations from the schools and bins at the grocery store,” said Mary McDonald, chairperson of the Barrhaven Food Cupboard. “Our clientele is about the same, it hasn’t gone up that much. We don’t see much of a change.”

The concern is that more donors will be affected by the economic slowdown and become unable to contribute.

Though there is always a slump in donations during the summer, Stittsville Food Bank chairperson Robin Derrick said the community always comes through.

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Shelves are stocked and organized at the Kanata Food Cupboard.

He said when he first began volunteering five years ago, they were serving about five families each Monday night. Now, it’s around 20, and a third of those are brand new to the organization.

“That’s a significant increase in what is supposed to be an affluent little town here,” he said.

“It’s the kind of job where there’s not let up,” he added. “It’s like the hospital, you can’t shut down on the weekends.”

Though shelves might get bare in the summer, Derrick said the community always responds when they ask for help.

“We don’t want to overburden the community, but when we do put the word out, they’re there,” he said. “We would not exist if not for the generosity of the community.”

Nepean’s Family Services Association of Churches is having a harder time meeting the summer demand.

“Where we have noticed a difference is a decrease in donations at the grocery stores,” said chairperson Carolyn Desjardins. “But it’s traditional in the summer that donations drop off anyway.”

Desjardins said while poverty will never disappear, she believes Ottawa has remained relatively unscathed by the economic downturn so far.

“Ottawa really is in a bubble when it comes to the recession,” she said. “The whole society isn’t feeling the recessional impact the way the rest of the province is. We’re isolated because the main employer is government.”

Desjardins said the organization may see an impact in about a year, but as long as people keep dropping non-perishables into the grocery store bins, Nepean residents should be able to receive emergency food help.

On a city-wide scale, donations have remained about the same or even grown.

Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank, said while demand from first-time clients has increased slightly, they also recently had one of the most successful food drives ever.

“In rough times, people feel comfortable giving food,” he explained. “People know that people have to eat, food is a basic necessity.”

Tilley said though there are more new families needing food bank services, overall requests have not gone up – yet. He said the food bank is working on a strategy to deal with an expected jump over the next few months, but also hopes to track clients more closely to gauge the economy’s effect.

“There’s been a 10 per cent increase in the number of first-time users,” he said. “That’s going to increase.

“But if there isn’t an increase, we want to be able to tell people that,” Tilley added.

According to the agency’s annual report, roughly 43,000 people need assistance every month. The city’s cupboard distributed an average of 12 tons of food per day last year, and has been able to meet around 80 per cent of the Ottawa-wide need.

“There’s always a bit of a shortfall,” said Tilley.

During the United Way’s most recent campaign, vice-president Joan Highet said there was some hesitation as people reached for their chequebooks. But in the end, Highet said supporters gave more than usual, recognizing the tough economic situations.

“We believe that the donors just dug deeper into their pockets,” she said. “This community is amazing. What I have seen is the amazing generosity of this community to dig.”

Canadians donated a whopping $10 billion to charity in 2007, according to Statistics Canada, before the recession hit the country last year. About 85 per cent of the national population also gave in-kind donations, such as food or clothing.

That willingness of community members to give of their money, food and time is what started the Kanata Food Cupboard in the first place.

BEGINNINGS

Jim Van Doorn was one of the founders of the food bank, which is housed in the basement of St. Paul’s Anglican Church.

In the spring of 1985, an interchurch council decided to put more social assistance programs in place for the community. After just a few months, they realized food was the major necessity, and the Kanata Food Cupboard was formed.

“We saw how bad the need was,” said Van Doorn. With only four volunteers, they delivered hampers to families from North Gower to Constance Bay.

“For a while, people didn’t want to admit there was poverty in Kanata,” he said, adding that eventually, the entire community supported the initiative and the service has only grown over the last 24 years.

“Out of the goodness of the hearts of people in Kanata, we flourished,” said Van Doorn. “They were very generous.”

Now, Van Doorn remains a regular volunteer at the food cupboard on Wednesday mornings, when all the major donations are sorted and stored. Over the last two decades, Van Doorn has done nearly every task, from chairing the board of directors to delivering Christmas hampers in a snowstorm. He has spent countless hours in the church basement, which is lined with handmade wooden shelves, large fridges and cardboard boxes.

“It was all worth it,” he said. “I’m still doing it with joy.”

Van Doorn has watched the client numbers fluctuate over the years and has seen family problems and other hardships – like the recent layoffs in Kanata – drive grown men to tears and parents to the food cupboard for help.

But Van Doorn said the greatest growth over the years hasn’t been demand – despite the fluctuations in the economy – but the number of volunteers that have asked to help.

“We’re there for the people that are in need,” he said simply. “We’re blessed with the opportunity to help these people out so they can have a normal life.”

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