Headwaters is a community of above-average wealth, set in a landscape of rich natural beauty, but these very attributes mask the hunger and poverty among us. For many people in this community, need and desperation are a daily reality, and front-line workers at local food banks say the situation is growing worse.
“We haven’t been to the food bank in two or three months now,” Stuart tells me, a hint of pride in his voice.
Too bad it couldn’t be for a worse reason. Stuart, his mom Helen and dad Harvey (not their real names) lost their rundown farmhouse near Grand Valley a month ago when they couldn’t pay the rent. They’re living in their minivan.
“The food bank doesn’t do me any good now that I have no kitchen,” Helen says.
Instead, they’re getting by on one meal a day at Orangeville’s Lighthouse soup kitchen, and the odd dinner invite from friends. Stuart is in his late thirties, disabled after surviving a brain tumour. Helen and Harvey are in their sixties, though health problems make them look older.
“How long can this go on?” I ask Helen.
I’ve hit a nerve, and her stare cuts right through me. Then she shrugs: “Winter’s coming. We’ll have to do something.”
Helen, Harvey and Stuart are just three of the hundreds of people in Headwaters who don’t have enough to eat.
In response to the need, Orangeville’s Good Friends Fellowship Church started The Lighthouse. From its office window on Broadway, Pastor Kerry Duffield says, “we could see the need walking by and started to think ‘Can we help them?’ It wasn’t all outside the door, either: hunger had begun to appear in Good Friends’ own congregation.
Duffield says, “We started simply, three years ago.” Now, they’re serving somewhere in the order of 70 people a day, six days a week – more than 12,000 meals a year. It’s not uncommon for them to see people who haven’t eaten in three days. The worst Duffield has seen is someone who hadn’t eaten in five.
At first Good Friends Fellowship funded the program themselves, but Duffield says, “The last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of help. Almost all the food and resources have come from the community.” Other churches and social organizations in the area have stepped up to provide support, and 35 to 40 volunteers are now on board.
Of course, often people who are going hungry are struggling with other problems as well. Mental health problems, addiction and unemployment are common. The Lighthouse has also served clients who are dying of cancer. Duffield says,”Lighthouse is about more than just feeding people. It’s about providing a place of belonging.” He adds, “It’s an opportunity to tell people that life can be better. Sometimes it’s a chance to say, ‘You know, maybe some of the choices you’re making aren’t good for you.'”
Unlike the formal process used by food banks to confirm need, Lighthouse takes people at their word, and welcomes all comers. Does that invite people to abuse the program? Maybe a few, and Duffield admits that the program is “on the border of enabling some people’s bad behaviours.” But he’quick to add, “You have to decide what your motivation is when you start feeding people, and for us that has nothing to do with what sort of people they are.” Besides, “If you don’t know the person, you can’t judge their situation.” Instead, he says, “We think of it as a gift of love. We try to give people the message that ‘We care about you and we won’t have anybody starve.'”
Outside the front door at the Orangeville Food Bank in an industrial mall on Centennial Road, I see a group of half a dozen women, several of them smoking. There’s friendly conversation between them, though even a brief glance at their faces suggests something darker going on, like a crowd outside a funeral home. A man and woman in their fifties move back and forth, carrying bags of groceries from the building to an old, blue Buick. The intensity of their focus as they undertake the job gives me the feeling they can’t leave quickly enough.
Inside the waiting room, eight or ten more people sit silently, eyes downcast. This group is mostly men, spaced as far apart from each other as the room will allow. In one corner, a beautiful young woman plays with two toddlers. Her eyes look sad, but she’s putting on a good show for the kids.
It’s Tuesday, the one day a week the food bank is open, and as OFB board member Melissa Kovacs Reid puts it, the place is “in action.” Clients come in, take a number, and wait – sometimes for an hour or more – to be interviewed by an intake worker who questions them on everything from their income to their living arrangements to their special dietary needs. They’re even asked how the food will be stored and cooked: Do you have a microwave? A freezer? A stove?
Clients are permitted to use the food bank’s services up to once a month. Those who have been before still undergo the interview, so their file can be kept up to date. However, of the 1,585 orders filled in the 2010-2011 operating year – an average of 132 a month – relatively few were for frequent users. Sixty-five per cent of clients visited one to three times, while only 5 per cent visited 10 times or more. Mason Reid, Melissa’s husband and a fellow food bank board member, says, “We see a lot of people who’ve lost their jobs and need some help for two or three months, until either they’re back on their feet, or forced to move somewhere cheaper to live than Orangeville.”
After the intake interview, and assuming you meet the criteria, an order is placed in the back room, where about a dozen of the organization’s thirty or so volunteers fill it, as though on some endless trip to the supermarket. There are even shopping carts. The contrast in atmosphere between waiting room and warehouse is stark: the volunteers are a cheerful bunch, running what appears to be a well-oiled, highly organized machine. Several have been with the organization since it began 19 years ago.
As to what goes in the order, you get what you’re given. While to the extent possible a varied, nutritious diet is provided, there’s no picking what kind of soup you receive, or whether your sausages are bratwurst or breakfast. No one cares about your preference for crunchy over smooth.
This place operates mostly on the principal of weight. Every donation is weighed coming in, and every order is weighed going out. Currently, an order for a single person averages 50 pounds. A standard order for a family averages 75 pounds. But Mason emphasizes that these numbers are kept primarily for mandatory reporting purposes and inventory management, and that the averages can be misleading. An order is supposed to represent a balanced diet for three to five days – though he acknowledges that many people stretch it out for much longer – and the weight of any particular order can vary according to the types of food available, how it’s packaged, and the number of people in a family.
It takes a computer spreadsheet and a lot of operating experience to match the volume of donations coming in with what’s going out. Mason says, “A while ago we were running family orders at an average of 79 pounds, but there was a dip in donations so we had to cut that back to 75.”
The volume of donations also fluctuates over the course of a year. There’s a spike between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when 30 to 45 per cent of the total annual donations arrives, and there’s a lull in the summer. “We get a large volume from Christmas food drives,” says Melissa. “Our facility has the advantage of lots of capacity, so we can even out the blips.”
Local grocery stores all have bins, where shoppers can buy food from the store and donate year-round. Sometimes, the grocery stores themselves donate leftover baked goods, or stock damaged in transport, such as a case of soft drinks with one can missing. Once a month, OFB receives a delivery from the Waterloo Food Bank, which handles sourcing and distribution of corporate donations from companies such as Maple Leaf Foods.
One chronic problem for food banks is how to source and handle perishable goods. Orangeville, for example, has 13 freezers, but only one refrigerator. Melissa recalls a time when they received a donation of 900 dozen eggs. “It was great for our clients, but we had nowhere to put them. All the volunteers had to take home as many as they could, and then bring them back as we distributed them. We definitely need more cold storage.”
Despite the need for refrigeration, the Orangeville Food Bank is attempting to incorporate more fresh, local food. They participate in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) at Breaking Ground Farm in Amaranth and some years they have received large donations of local potatoes.
This year, food bank volunteers are growing a vegetable patch at Islandview Community Gardens that they hope will yield several hundred pounds of fresh produce, and that will be supplemented by portions of the bounty from several other community gardens, as well as from Awesome Blossom, a vegetable market near Caledon East that has been delivering produce weekly this summer. Still, Melissa says, “there’s room to source more locally.”
And there’s one more wrinkle: any meat or dairy products the food bank takes in must be federally inspected.
Orangeville Food Bank is also a founding partner of Gateway Community Centre, which opened this past June. Originally conceived as a way to reduce the risks associated with homelessness in Dufferin, Gateway evolved into a one-stop shop for accessing social service agencies. More important, the initiative, operating from the basement of St. Mark’s church in Orangeville, provides a drop-in centre for disadvantaged people with no shelter from the elements during daytime hours.
After a little over a month of operation, Gateway is averaging about 16 users a day, though this is expected to rise significantly as winter sets in. Several referrals to OFB and Lighthouse have already been made. Its youngest client to date was 10 years old.
Down in Caledon, meanwhile, there’s a different approach. There, while food hampers are distributed when they’re available, most food bank clients are given a gift card, redeemable at local grocery stores, which they can use up to twice a month. In 2010, $84,000 worth of the cards were distributed.
Monty Laskin, executive director of Caledon Community Services, says that while Caledon is a place of “some abundance,” which “should be able to take care of our residents,” that sure doesn’t mean there’s enough for all. Laskin says CCS sees six to eight new homeless people every month. In March, 2011, their food bank served 464 individuals spread across 164 households. Of those, 191 were children under the age of 19.
The working poor also stand out in Caledon. In March, 2011, while Orangeville only reported 14 clients who were employed, in Caledon there were 64. Where in Orangeville only two clients owned their own home, in Caledon there were 34.
Laskin draws attention to another aspect of the connection between poverty and food: “We do have some people actually going hungry in Caledon, but the bigger problem is people eating unhealthy diets.” Many people lack the nutritional knowledge and cooking skills necessary to make the most of healthy food options, which can be cheaper than junk food.
At first, I can’t decide whether to feel happy or dismayed when Laskin says, “We have big plans for the food bank in the next few years.” At least until he explains. Caledon Community Services has submitted a proposal to the United Way for annual funding to establish a food support program as a social enterprise. The initiative would create a 2,000 to 3,000 square-foot food bank that would include a commercial kitchen and for-profit lunch nook, as well as a catering service. The plan is to operate it as a co-op where food bank clients work 10 to 15 hours a week as a means of giving back.
Gillian Riseborough is manager of community supports and volunteer co-ordinator for East Wellington Community Services, and she runs the Erin Food Bank. Erin served 261 families in 2010, what she describes as a “huge increase” of 30 per cent over the year before. In 2010, they distributed a little over 30,000 pounds of food.
While urban Orangeville reports that the number of clients remains fairly steady over the course of a year, Erin gets a spike between January and March. Riseborough feels this is because they have a lot of seasonal workers who, for example, get laid off from the golf course in the fall and by mid-winter their employment insurance benefits have run out. Over the last two years, Erin has also experienced a spike in the number of teenagers using the food bank, most of whom are couch surfers (bunking in with various friends).
Though it’s clear there’s a need for food banks in the region, are there people who are actually going hungry? Riseborough says, “Yes, there are. Not because there’s no food, but because people’s dignity prevents them from taking it. We have occasions when someone will contact us and tell us that their neighbour needs help. But we have a policy here that we can’t approach people; they have to come to us. So all we can do is give them theÂ information and tell them to see if they can get their neighbour to use it. I remember one woman in particular who turned up in my office, sobbing, when she finally had no choice.”
Despite describing her job as “very emotional,” Riseborough stresses that it’s also “very rewarding,” adding, “I have so many great stories of people giving back.” Stories like this one: “A few years ago we had a husband and wife who both got laid off from their jobs. They were here for a couple of months, then they disappeared. Six months later I got a call from the woman and she said, ‘We’ve both got jobs, we’ve caught up on our bills and we’re back on our feet. Now, what do you need?’ Two days later they turned up with a car full of food.”
When you think of KFC chicken, chances are the bucket you picture is not the dumpster behind the store. Mary Vervoort, executive director of Choices Youth Shelter in Orangeville, tells me that at any given time she knows of more than 10 people who are surviving thanks to the food restaurants throw out at the end of each day. Food they destroy rather than donate, due to liability concerns.
An empty stomach has a way of sharpening the eye. Vervoort says, “People get to know exactly which restaurant throws out what, and when. If they’re lucky, they’ll get the food while it’s still hot.” In winter, that hot food serves another purpose: it means the inside of the dumpster is a place out of the cold.
Many of the dumpster divers are youths who either won’t come to the shelter or can’t, because they’ve broken the rules or committed a serious crime. Even then, Vervoort points out, “they’re still entitled to food.”
So, as an alternative to the dumpster, Choices also runs its own small food bank, giving out an average of about 20 boxes a month, each with enough food for roughly a week. Of course, that only solves part of the problem. Vervoort says, “Some have no place to cook, so we tell them to come in and eat here. We often have a few extra people around the table at suppertime.”
There is a popular conception that young adults choose to be homeless, rather than having to work for a living. Vervoort thinks that is mostly nonsense. Choices’ clients are between the ages of 16 and 24, and she says, “Most have an incomplete education. When a recession hits and there are cutbacks, they’re the first to lose their jobs. Then they’re the last to get them back when it’s over. The working poor are the true victims, and that’s a very large segment of the population.”
Choices’ statistics back her up: every year for the past three, their client load has increased by 22 per cent, totaling 166 young people in 2010.
While Choices deals with young adults, it’s the school system that’s left to confront hunger in little kids. In the Town of Erin and Dufferin County, 2,600 elementary and high school students receive daily breakfast, lunch or snacks through the Food and Friends program, operated by the Children’s Foundation in Guelph with the help of nearly a hundred volunteers. As the foundation’s Anita MacFarlane told me: “For some students the meal they receive from our programs is the only food they’ll eat all day.”
Karen Kowaluk, principal of Centennial Hylands Elementary School in Shelburne, explains how it works. There, about 100 kids take advantage of the school breakfast program, which is open to everyone. Of those 100, typically 30 or so have arrived with no midday meal either, so they’re quietly given a brown bag containing lunch. “That way,â€ she says, ‘they look just like all the other kids come lunchtime, so there’s no teasing.”
Back at Choices, Mary Vervoort sums up the matter of youth and hunger in blunt terms. She has seen a lot over the years, and admits that she has developed a thick skin. Now, she’s “not shocked, but angry. It tears your heart out. We need to tell people to take one step back and look around. Open your eyes and see what’s going on.”
A couple of hours pass as Helen, Harvey and Stuart tell me the litany of disasters that brought them to living in a minivan. No one thing was the determining factor, just the accumulated weight of one hard knock after another. They overwhelm me with a sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.
Their story seems so extreme, so unfair. Perhaps it is, but it’s also far from singular. Even living in the car, they have neighbours: every night they’re joined by six or eight other cars, directed by the police to the same spot in Orangeville, so the cops can keep an eye out to make sure they’re okay.
All around us, so many struggling people, all with their own tale of woe.
The lump in my throat comes when, astonishingly, Helen says, “There are lots of people worse off than us.”
To a well fed, complacent slob like me, that’s hard to comprehend.
Jeff Rollings is a freelance writer living in Orangeville.