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Food For Thought

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June 18, 2012

Food For Thought

by Lamont Dobbin

Helen and Heather prepare client orders in the pantry at Stairs United. Photo: Lamont Dobbin

DARTMOUTH, NOVA SCOTIA—As government agencies find themselves unwilling or, more likely, unable to solve Canada’s poverty problems, provincial organizations like Feed Nova Scotia and individual food banks like Stairs United, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, confront these issues head-on, constantly enlarging and improving as they daily wage one of our nation’s most difficult battles: to keep our poorest and most vulnerable citizens as well fed as possible.

Canada’s first food bank opened its doors in Edmonton, Alberta in 1981. Prior to this, low income people scrounged extra food from a miscellaneous assortment of soup kitchens, churches and charities, or simply went without. Of course, poverty and hunger were not restricted to Edmonton and very soon other cities and towns followed the food bank’s example. Since that time, those providing free food to Canada’s poorest citizens have opened over 800 food banks and now operate more than 3,000 food programs.

In many ways the food bank at Stairs Memorial United Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia is a microcosm of the national food bank movement, expanding and modifying its services to meet an ever-growing and changing need.

Martin Walker is the current president of the North Dartmouth Outreach Resource Centre (NDORC), the organization that now officially runs the Stairs food bank. “I’m really impressed by the hands-on attitude of the volunteers here, the get-it-done attitude. They know that people need this and they just do it.” says Walker. “There’s almost no turnover here among our volunteers. Once people come here to help out, even if they didn’t plan a long-term commitment, they really tend to stay.”

Back in the mid-seventies when Stairs first started, it wasn’t really a food bank at all. Parishioners would bring contributions directly to the minister at the time, Reverend Vince Ihasz, who stored the food in his clothes closet and discreetly allocated the donations to those in need.

By 1987, the demand reached such proportions that a Food Bank Committee was established to be directly responsible to the congregation.

The passing decades have seen not only the growth of food banking but constant evolution and adaptation to changing times and needs. Many food banks have expanded their mandate to include provision of other services such as training in food preparation, assistance with job searching and raising awareness of hunger and poverty. Food banks have become one-stop-shops, offering clients resources and referrals to other support services, such as child care and affordable housing. All of this has been accomplished with heavy reliance on volunteer labour: almost half of all food banks in Canada are run entirely by volunteers.

There would appear to be three major factors fueling the evolution of food banks in Canada. First are the basic improvements and efficiencies gained through experience.

Frances Hunter, who has been Food Bank Manager at Stairs for 15 years, remembers driving to several different grocery stores to pick up day-old bread and items from the donation bins. Workers from other food banks would be doing much the same thing in their locale. “It’s just something I was called to do,” Hunter says. She’s very animated when discussing the clients. “Each one is different. They need to feel they are respected. Each one has a story and they want to be listened to. They want to be hugged and see a friendly face and that’s what I do – give them a hug and a big smile. That’s my reward too, the hugs and smiles I get.”

Increased demand in Nova Scotia, like all provinces in Canada, has seen the creation of central collection and distribution agencies. Feed Nova Scotia, a non-profit NGO created in 1984 as a Metro Food Society, now coordinates food bank operations in the greater Halifax area. Today it gathers and allocates food to more than 150 member agency food banks and meal programs across Nova Scotia.

The second factor that appears to be stimulating food bank modifications is contact with clients at the grassroots level, which is bringing into focus previously unrecognized needs. Stairs United, for instance, like almost every food bank in the country, now supplies diapers, dish and laundry detergent and toiletries. The church has also set aside an area for clothing and book donations.

Regular interaction with clients also allows volunteers to get a sense of the extreme social and psychological isolation poverty produces, causing most food banks to invite other agencies to visit during open hours and make themselves more readily available to those in need. Gordon McKeen, president of NDORC for the past ten years, explains the benefits of regular interaction.

“Our clients can be very fragile because of the problems they have and also because of the way that society treats them,” says McKeen. “For many people, it’s not easy to come to a food bank. One woman told me she walked past half-a-dozen times before she came in. For this reason we want to be very gentle in our dealings. We also want to be humble. Any of us can fall victim to circumstance. Finally, we need to be frugal both with our assets and our energy so that we can make sure every client gets help and shares the resources we have to offer.”

Stairs is regularly visited by Dartmouth Family Centre, Dalhousie Legal Aid, the Public Good Society and the newly formed Community Health Team, among others. Thanks to these organizations, clients can get advice and assistance with child-care issues, tenant-landlord problems, education and employment concerns, and questions about medical access and health issues.

The current minister at Stairs, Reverend Sarah Reaburn, remains closely connected with the food bank as well, usually spending the entire morning speaking (and sometimes praying) with clients who otherwise might not have that kind of spiritual connection in their lives.

“People frequently want to discuss their grief, often old grief that hasn’t been dealt with. There are also relationship problems and these often involve addiction issues. Lots of people just want to pray,” says Reaburn. “Of course, some people just want to chat! Since I’ve been doing this for over five years, I know these folks and they know me so there’s always lots of catching up.”

Stairs may be slightly ahead of the curve with one of their client services: transportation. Recognizing that many people have trouble getting their groceries home due to handicaps and other access issues, Councillor Jim Smith (District 9 Albro Lake Harbourview) has been offering rides to Stairs patrons almost every Wednesday morning for the last six years.

Last year Smith invited Ralph MacKenzie to join him and just a few months ago, the two men, along with the Public Good Society, a Dartmouth-based non-profit, obtained the license to operate the first urban community-based van in the Halifax Regional Municipality. The van is available to other charitable organizations and agencies making food bank visits available to those who otherwise could not participate.

“Some people wouldn’t come to the food bank at all without a ride home,” says MacKenzie. “They can’t afford cab-fare and physically can’t carry the groceries home. People talk about what a great thing you’re doing, but I feel really rewarded. I’m building relationships with these people. I know their names, where they live, and what’s going on in their families. I'm making friends. I love it.”

Being face-to-face with poverty is a powerful motivator and food banks like Stairs have responded. With only two paid staff, Stairs makes sure that one of them is an outreach worker, in this case, Tom Clarke. Clarke joined the food bank for what he thought was a one year stint. Fifteen years later he’s still the outreach coordinator.

Stairs also invites another outreach worker, Kevin Little from the non-profit Public Good Society, to attend the food bank to arrange job postings, education and employment opportunities, housing connections, and contacts with other helping agencies. Thanks to their work, clients have improved their education, gotten jobs and training grants, and became acquainted with numerous other beneficial organizations.

Lamont Dobbin volunteers at Stairs United. He lives and works in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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