Hungry Yukoners exhaust local food banks

Linda Hilton was driving near Range Road when she saw a slight, native woman trying to hitch a ride to the Salvation Army to eat lunch.

Linda Hilton was driving near Range Road when she saw a slight, native woman trying to hitch a ride to the Salvation Army to eat lunch.

She stopped and helped the frail, elderly woman into her car.

“I just thought: This is not right,” said Hilton, a Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition board member.

“Some people exist on the one meal they get from Salvation Army each day.”

The coalition, and other anti-poverty advocates are working to put square meals on empty tables around Whitehorse.

They are trying to start a food bank that would dole out grocery bags brimming with everything needed for a balanced diet — fresh vegetables, meats, eggs and milk, on top of the standard canned fare.

Currently a handful of charities serve meals and run emergency food programs in downtown Whitehorse.

Many are already running at full capacity and don’t have the resources to buy or store perishable foods, like vegetables, meat and milk.

“What’s lacking is a true food bank which would give out the perishables and the things that round out the nutrition scale — the fruit, the veg, the milk, eggs, cheese and meat — all the things your mother says you should eat,” said Sue Edelman, co-chair of the Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition.

“We’ve been talking to people who live in poverty and their No. 1 priority is a real food bank so they can get all the nutrients they need and feed their families.”

The face of poverty is changing in the city, said Edelman.

The kitchens began feeding people who had permanent disabilities that kept them from working.

Today they feed families and the working poor.

“It used to be that people who came to the soup kitchen were social-assistance recipients, that’s just not the case anymore,” said Edelman.

Young people working two to three jobs and still couldn’t make it through the month began lining up for food.

More seniors arrived.

“There’s a misconception in the community that people who use a food bank are lazy or ne’er-do-wells but that’s really inaccurate,” said Edelman.

“We see these young families where he’s working three jobs and she’s working two and they’re barely making it. Their kids don’t have what they need in their lunches every day.”

When an illness leads to lost wages and bills eat up an entire paycheque, or social assistance doesn’t last through the month, people need a place to get a balanced meal.

And the number of hungry in the city is growing, she added.

When the weekend soup kitchen, run out of the basement of the Sacred Heart Cathedral, started 10 years ago maybe 30 to 40 people used it, said Edelman.

Now it sees 85 to 100 hungry people per week.

And Maryhouse must scale back its food program or face bankruptcy.

Under Maryhouse’s emergency food program the city’s hungry can get a grocery bag full of non-perishables once a month.

It serves more than 200 people each month and the high demand has tapped out the organization’s resources.

“We can’t keep doing this because we’re gonna be bankrupt — there’s more going out than coming in,” said Christine Herlihy, a staff worker at Maryhouse.

“We live by donation, by begging for everything that we have.”

But the donations have been running short and the organization must buy food to keep up.

“Last year we spent $30,000 on food; that’s quite a bit of money.”

It’s spending that the organization cannot afford.

“We’re not going to close, but we are going to limit what we put in the bags — we’ll put less in the bags to help the food go a little bit further.”

The Salvation Army also runs an emergency food service in Whitehorse.

People can access its program once every five weeks.

During 2005, the Salvation Army spent $84,000 supplying 2,000 people with emergency groceries.

“We would be more effective in our service to the community if resources could be found to install a walk-in cooler facility in our building,” said Salvation Army captain Robert Sessford.

But there’s a lot of work to be done before a food bank can begin stocking its shelves and freezers, said Edelman.

Finding secure, long-term funding is the first and biggest hurdle.

“We don’t want to start up a service that gets chopped,” said Edelman.

Then, the coalition must scout for a location.

“Not everybody is going to want a food bank next to them,” she added.

The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition will host a potluck and general meeting Thursday, May 11 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the United Church basement to gauge public support and discuss the next steps in creating a food bank.