Food bank overwhelmed by hungry families on first day

Poverty in the Yukon is difficult to measure because it's often hidden. But on the opening day of the Yukon's first food bank provided a clue to extent of the problem.

Poverty in the Yukon is difficult to measure because it’s often hidden.

But on the opening day of the Yukon’s first food bank provided a clue to extent of the problem.

Within the wood enclosure inside the former Legion Hall on Alexander Street, one corner was still piled with bags waiting to be picked up by single people looking to fill their cupboards.

Opposite that pile, the family bag corner was empty.

The food bank had only been opened for four hours.

“The family bags are all gone,” said Julie Menard, the food bank’s manager. “We thought today we’d have more single people, but we (actually) got six families.”

At least 15 people used the facility on its first day, said Menard.

“Today we had people coming from the communities,” she said. “As far as Mayo and Haines Junction.”

Poverty in the Yukon stays under the radar because of social reasons, says Menard, one of the Anti-Poverty Coalition’s co-chairs.

“A lot of the poverty is (hidden),” she said. “Because it’s cold and people live with other friends and people live in vans. They stay at their sister’s place.”

Whitehorse’s privileged class also has its own brand of ignorance. Statistically, Whitehorse residents receive very high wages because territorial and federal government jobs pay well.

But that makes it harder for those people to realize that there’s a subclass in town.

“It’s really expensive living in the North,” said Menard. “Both parents have to work if there’s children. Even most of the people I know live with roommates.”

“In Whitehorse, it’s so separated,” she said. “We have these big salaries and then we have the low-income Superstore workers and other poor workers.”

“They don’t get bonuses.”

The food bank has been a dream in the minds of Whitehorse social activists for the last several years. But once the ball got rolling, anti-poverty groups and businesses seemed an easy match.

Yukon Energy donated $10,000 in cash and a refitted van to help with transportation, and Northwestel stepped up with free phone service.

It took a certain amount of momentum to get people to believe it could happen, said Ross Findlater, the 70-year-old retired social worker who founded the Anti-Poverty Coalition in 1996.

The coalition was the driver behind the food bank idea, an attempt to bring Whitehorse in league with other provincial and territorial capitals in the country, which all have food banks.

“In any evolving social issue like this, there has to be critical mass of interest and commitment,” said Findlater, who shares the coalition’s chairmanship with Menard and Bill Thomas.

That critical mass was achieved at the coalition’s annual general meeting held in May 2006 in the United Church basement, he said.

The movement began to ferment from that meeting, which was attended by politicians, social activists and people dealing with poverty.

The coalition was able to get funding for a feasibility study after the meeting, said Findlater, and a report on a food bank plan was released in late 2007.

For years, discussions and survey revealed that low-income earners in Whitehorse considered food security one of the hardest struggles to deal with, especially when children were involved, said Findlater.

A second meeting was held in the fall of 2007 after the report was released. Findlater remembers the sinking feeling he had when five minutes prior to the meeting, only two people were in attendance.

But in true Yukon form, within five minutes of the meeting’s opening, the room was filled with business owners, government people and rash of willing volunteers.

“We were just absolutely astounded at the interest and at the calibre of people who volunteered that night to be on the board,” said Findlater.

A board of 13 members was created that night and, after a year and a half of organizing and fundraising, the food bank is finally open.

When recipients walk through the door, they must register so the food bank can track the number of people it feeds.

“When they come in, they get a bag,” said Menard. “But it’s not really what we hope to (always) be giving.”

“We’ll be giving, hopefully, fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, bread, milk, which we don’t have today.”

For now, most of the food are dried and canned goods that come from the Salvation Army and Mary House. Eventually, the food bank wants its registered users to pick what they want from what’s available, rather than simply pick up a bag of basics.

The food bank is expecting to serve 120 people this month, but it’s aiming to eventually serve between 200 to 300 people.

“A food bank should not exist,” said Menard. “Everyone should have food on the table.”

But an empty stomach can’t wait until the underlying social problems that cause poverty are addressed.

“It’s a Band-Aid for a while,” said Menard. “And hopefully we’ll find a solution that will create a place where we don’t need a food bank.”

Contact James Munson at