Pandemic leaves food banks struggling to meet demands

ST. STEPHEN – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused financial hardship for many, and without food banks, many families would not have enough to eat. Now, food banks are suffering due to the pandemic as well, and they need help in order to continue helping communities. In St. Stephen, Volunteer Centre of Charlotte County (VCCC) Coordinator Donna Linton said the cost of groceries has risen, and this is making it difficult for food banks to be able to provide for the families who require assistance.

“COVID has cost the food bank money,” said Linton. “Now, I have to purchase milk for each and every client that comes through our door. We’re looking at $2 a family, minimum, and that’s a one-litre only. If it’s a bigger family that needs a gallon, it’s more like $7 or $8. The National Food Sharing System and FDA do send eggs and milk once a month, but it doesn’t get us through the full month.”

Linton said the food bank purchases milk because she doesn’t feel that it is fair to only offer it once a month. If VCCC is going to do that, she said VCCC needs to be able to offer it all the time to those who need it. In a normal year, Linton said the food bank would spend around $60,000 on food for clients. Right now, they are already about half-way through that budget, and she expects that the amount will have increased by about 40 per cent by the end of this year.

COVID-19 also forced many businesses to implement a mask rule, even though the province is in the Green phase of recovery. Linton would like clients to know that although they have been going maskless for the past couple of months, VCCC will be reverting back to asking all employees, volunteers, and clients to wear masks while they are in the building as of Wednesday, September 1. She said not everyone who comes through the doors has been vaccinated, and while they understand this is a personal choice, in order to keep everyone safe, the mask rule will be put back into place.

“It’s not mandatory I don’t believe, but it will be greatly appreciated. All the staff will have masks on, whereas now, we’ve really enjoyed not wearing them.”

One item the food bank will be able to give to clients this fall is meat, an item Linton is excited to offer. She said she and her staff are “really looking forward to the fall”, because they are finally putting the venison program in place. Linton said she hasn’t officially received any type of notification, but the organization has received a Class 3 premise license, which means they are now able to accept food from non-traditional sources, such as hunters.

“We’re really looking forward to connecting with families that we have on file that have expressed a keen interest in eating this product,” said Linton. “It is a really good product. It’s all-natural, and it has evaded the traditional meat stores. People like it sometimes if they’re sensitive to a lot of food. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. I don’t think a lot of children like it. You do have to have a technique for cooking it. I’ve seen people have great success with crock pots. So, crock pots are probably something I’m going to be looking for into the fall for our families. It tenderizes the meat quite well.”

Linton said the food bank will also once again be offering “client choice”, where clients can go in and choose the food items they want. This actually saves the food bank a lot of money by cutting down on giving clients foods they don’t want and won’t eat. Linton said the VCCC had started doing this a couple of years ago, from October, 2019 through February, 2020, and then the pandemic hit, which put an end to allowing people to pick out their own groceries.

“When COVID happened, we had to start re-packing the hampers. We’re giving out probably close to 10,000 pounds of food a month, and when people pick their own foods, it’s closer to 6,000 pounds that goes out.”

There are certain products that the food bank always needs, so Linton and her team have developed a “purchase a product for us” campaign. As an example, she said one month, VCCC may call on a service organization to provide ketchup. In fact, she said besides meat, dairy,and vegetables, the main items people seem to want are condiments. Anyone who would like to take part in this program can contact Linton at 466-4995 to find out what the food bank needs.

Snack foods are also in high demand. Linton said most of the time, donations tend to be food for traditional meals, but VCCC received many requests for snacks. She gave a shout-out to the schools and the We’ve Got Your Back Foundation for ensuring students have healthy snacks during school hours and on the weekends. So, she is now looking at focusing on other food needs in the community.

“I have to commend the schools,” said Linton. “They feed the children morning, noon, and likely in the afternoon. We don’t have a big call for school snacks. Then, there’s the We’ve Got Your Back program. What I really need to focus on, is as the colder months approach us, the people operating without electricity (we’re at about five homes) and it doesn’t look like it’s getting back on any time soon.”

So, how can things get better for food banks and the families who need this type of service? Linton said minimum wage needs to be increased, and that small to medium-sized businesses, as well as the province, need to “ante up the wages now”. She said the CERB payment allowed people to have comfortable incomes, and they should be able to have employment that offers the same livable income.

“If the CERB payment can provide some sort of basic, livable income people are comfortable on, I think the rest of industry, including our province, needs to look at that figure.”