Food bank coordinator cites poverty as culprit as centre sees record use of services

Sari Green/Courier Food bank volunteer Laurel Lee Smith enjoys helping others who need the services from the food bank, but worries there will not always be enough of everything that families need. Currently, they are running low on Kraft Dinner, and they also need a lot of protein foods, such as canned meats, stews, and soups.

St. Stephen – As a general rule, the food bank in St. Stephen, operated by the Volunteer Centre of Charlotte County, Inc., sees about 25 to 30 families in the run of a normal day. Last week, they saw record numbers of families needing food to help get them through until the end of the month. Coordinator Donna Linton said 54 families used the food bank services on Monday, and 55 on Wednesday. They also had three emergencies on Tuesday, which is a closed day. Linton said fortunately, they are at the volunteer centre every day, so even on closed days they can help families that are in urgent need of groceries.

“I’ve been here 27 years, and our busiest day ever was 44 families,” said Linton. “That was three years ago and it only happened once. Most of the time, it’s between 25 and 30 families on an open day, during the middle of the month when money is gone.”

Linton said poverty plays a huge role in the amount of families that need to access food banks in New Brunswick. She commented that households that receive $536 a month from welfare usually have about $7 to $17 left over after paying for rent and utilities. That doesn’t leave much for the rest of the month for food and other essentials.

From Monday until Wednesday last week, Linton said they gave out about 1,600 pounds of food. She said this is a $2 per pound value, so the cost would have been about $3,200. Divided by 54 families, this would be about $55 per family. It’s still not a lot of food, but it’s more than most of these families are able to afford. But, this likely isn’t going to be enough to sustain these families until the end of their next pay period.

“Think about it. If you have very little food left in your cupboards, or not enough to pull things together, and you’ve got $55 worth of food, when are you going to need food again? A lot of these people probably aren’t even going to make it until the end of the month.”

Linton said they are very fortunate the community is so supportive, and without that support, the food bank would not be able to continue to operate in the manner that it currently does. While they do have enough food to keep them going for a few more months, they are still relying on donations, both private and from local businesses, to ensure that there will be enough food for all of the families that come through their doors each month. As a general rule, they tend to see anywhere from 180 to 220 families in the run of a month, and with repeat usage, this number can increase to between 250 and 270.

While they did have a decrease in repeats in the month of January, they did have 16 new registrations. Linton said these are families that have never used the food bank before. She doesn’t know if all 16 households will become regular food bank users, but she does expect that about half of them will need help from the food bank for at least six months.

“As we approach the next few weeks, we’re going to continue to power-purchase wherever we can, and keep supplies on hand. We’re learning that things we have a really hard time keeping in stock, and that everyone seems to need and appreciate, are things like peanut butter, jam, canned stews, mayo, ketchup, canned tuna, canned ham, etc. Those are the things that are flying off our shelves. We’re really just struggling to make sure that all families have easy access to the food they are looking for.”

Linton said they try to always provide two meat choices to families whenever possible, which could be ground beef, hot dogs, and chicken. Everyone gets two selections, when the meat is available. They are receiving large amounts of yogurt and bread from the Superstore, and they have frozen product they received from the national food sharing system. They are also hoping to have a dry goods order from another food sharing system within the next couple of weeks.

“We want to be able to develop and strengthen our retail connections,” said Linton. “Right now we have a terrific relationship with Giant Tiger and Superstore, and some convenience stores. We want to get into other stores. Instead of just throwing their products at best before dates away, we can pick up when there is a supply there. We also want to reinforce and maintain our existing partnerships and strengthen them.”

Linton also mentioned in the coming months, they are looking into establishing a food drive committee. This would be a group that looks at the different models of food drives that actually work in rural settings.

“Our goal is to engage people who use the food bank, and we have a great number of youth that have always shown interest in what goes on at the food bank, and are reaching out and willing to help,” said Linton.

Linton said they welcome anyone who needs the food bank to drop in. There is a screening process, as the food bank is not for everyone. She said they are cautious in the screening process, but they will strive to ensure that all families who need the food bank will have access to it.

“I see a lot of sadness. The poverty trap is deep. It’s not like someone can throw a rope in so they can climb out. We have some real mending to do in this poverty trap.”