When the cupboard is bare

There’s never been a real food bank in Whitehorse. Emergency food programs and various soup kitchens have masked the need for one.

There’s never been a real food bank in Whitehorse.

Emergency food programs and various soup kitchens have masked the need for one.

“Because we provide emergency food, people say we’re a food bank,” said Maryhouse director Kate O’Donnell on Wednesday.

“But we have other work to do.”

Maryhouse actually scaled its food program back from three days a week to two in August.

“But the same number of people still come every month,” said O’Donnell.

“It’s over 200.”

In fact, the number of bare cupboards and empty fridges in the territory is on the rise.

“The demand for hot meals and food has been growing over the last several years,” said Anti-Poverty Coalition co-chair Ross Findlater on Tuesday.

Findlater, who has volunteered at local soup kitchens, used to see primarily single men queuing for food.

“Now there’s a growing number of women, kids and families showing up,” he said.

And during support-group meetings with people living in poverty, Findlater has heard time and again: “The biggest need is for a food bank.”

Across the country, food bank use has almost doubled since 1989, according to the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

And more than 49 per cent of the food recipients are children.

In the mid-‘90s, all federal parties made a commitment to end poverty by 2000, said local food bank consultant Peter Becker.

“And they failed gloriously.”

Becker has been hired by the anti-poverty coalition to create a food bank “feasibility study that looks directly at a real plan that’s sellable and supportable,” said Findlater.

“Because we have good food programs, but they’re not meeting the need.”

Past surveys have shown that people on social assistance don’t have enough food at the end of the month, said Becker.

And the food budget for those working low-income jobs is very small.

“Housing costs are so high, people are left with literally pennies a day for food,” he said.

“And if you don’t pay rent, you don’t have a roof over your head.”

So people choose hunger.

There’s a long list of reasons for poverty, said Becker, who estimates that there are several thousand people in Whitehorse who don’t get enough to eat.

“Our goal is to not have hungry people,” he said.

“It’s an ethical goal, but also affects public health — physically and mentally.”

When a large number of people are malnourished, it costs the health-care system, he said.

And kids who go hungry don’t do as well in school.

“Even with the school food programs, kids are still short on food,” said Becker.

Currently, families or individuals in need of food can get an emergency three-day supply from the Salvation Army every five weeks.

Maryhouse also offers emergency rations that will tide people over for a couple of days. But recipients are only eligible for these provisions every four weeks.

“And if you’re homeless, where are you going to cook them?” said Becker.

“The big issue is to provide food security.”

Becker dreams of a food bank that is customized to meet people’s needs.

It will offer healthy food, including wholegrain breads, and will cater to individuals with medical concerns, like diabetes.

“We could hand out sheets with symbols to show people how to put tasty meals together, because not everyone knows,” added Becker.

Ideally, the food bank will be downtown, share a building with a community kitchen, and gather some of its fresh produce from community gardens.

“The Downtown Urban Gardeners Society is already allocating a big swath for food bank production,” said Becker.

“And the society has applied to pay gardeners to train people how to garden.”

But food bank planning is still in its infancy.

Becker needs to find funds, food donations, a building and staff.

“We have to look at what’s feasible and sustainable in Whitehorse,” said Findlater.

“There’s no doubt the community food programs need to be expanded. But we have to see what’s possible to put in place.

“In the end, it could just be giving current food distributors more support,” he said.

Right now, Maryhouse can’t accept large food donations.

“The Canadian Food Bank offered to send us up a whole tractor-trailer load of food at one point,” said O’Donnell.

“But we don’t have the storage facilities.”

Maryhouse can’t even package or give out fresh produce.

“But if we had a proper food bank, food donated after conventions and other events could be properly handled and shared,” said O’Donnell.

Often, when Maryhouse receives food it can’t handle, it offers it to the Salvation Army.

“People don’t want to see it go in the garbage, but they don’t want to stick around and wait for the Salvation Army to open,” she said.

“So we work in conjunction.

“But if there was a proper food bank, like in other cities where they have a central warehouse, then people could utilize it.”

Maryhouse and the Sally Ann would probably still offer emergency food programs, said O’Donnell.

“But with a real food bank we wouldn’t be dealing with the same volume.

“Hopefully we could work more one-on-one, instead of one-on-50, like it is now.”

With the increase in poverty across the country, it’s a good time to open a food bank, said Becker, noting that Yellowknife and Nunavut already have one.

“We have a strong momentum now. And the Canadian Association of Food Banks is looking at shipping food from areas with more of it, to areas in need.

“It’s in the process of extending its usual mode of operations to the North.”

During his research, Becker discovered there was some concern that free food might not be used appropriately.

There’s worry it could be sold for booze or drugs, he said.

“But surveys show that misuse of food bank goods is under five per cent,” said Becker.

There’s also a fear that giving food to people will be bad for local business.

“But it’s actually the other way around,” he said.

“It’s usually the working poor who can’t feed their kids, or people with disabilities. And by helping these people, it gets them functioning in society.”

It’s not as simple as saying free food means people won’t work, added O’Donnell.

“It’s hard with minimum-wage pay — you have no benefits and suddenly you need a tooth pulled — that’s expensive. Or if you’re a single mom who starts working, then you need to put your kid in daycare …”

There’s always a reason people aren’t working, said O’Donnell, remembering her dad.

“He had a heart condition,” she said.

But he looked perfectly fit.

“He would always say he was the healthiest-looking disabled person on the face of the Earth.”

Poverty is hidden in Canada, she said.

“There’s a stigma attached to it.”

It’s estimated that for every person who uses a food bank, five others in need don’t, said Becker, who hopes to lend some dignity to the whole experience.

Becker doesn’t want the food bank to exclude people, require them to show ID, or set unreasonable limits on the frequency of visits.

“If our limit is generous, it handles differently,” he said.

“But we’re still waiting for lots of answers.”

The food bank study and working plan should be completed by the end of April.

“We then need to show that we have a plan in place that has some substance. And we need to leverage funding from various levels of government,” said Becker.

“We’re a pretty wealthy community,” said Findlater.

“We shouldn’t be seeing people go hungry.”

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