Lindsay Burry is one of many volunteers who is feeding people in Dryden – but the work comes with emotional highs and lows.
Burry is a member of the First United Church in Dryden, in northwestern Ontario Last March, the church began serving hot meals every Tuesday night.
The program was prompted by what church members felt was a gap in community services: though there were different options for people to get food during the day, there weren’t any at night.
In the church program, volunteers purchase, prepare and serve the meals themselves. The numbers fluctuate greatly week to week, with anywhere between 20 to 65 people coming each Tuesday. Some choose to dine at the church while others take their meals to go, sometimes collecting food for other household members as well.
While they don’t keep track of unique visitors, about 1,350 people came through the door in the program’s first nine months, and more than 2,300 meals were served, Burry said.
“It’s a good feeling, but it’s also a really bad feeling, like to know that there’s that many people that need to come out for this,” Burry told CBC News.
And people often need more than food — the program offers a couple hours of shelter and socializing every week, where everyone is welcome.
The Community Table recently received funding to operate two nights a week until the end of March, allowing the program to expand during the winter months. People can now attend the meals Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.
“We see it, we hear it from people that come in that they’re grateful to have a place to go, they’re grateful to connect with people, they’re grateful for the food,” Burry said. “It’s definitely something that’s needed in our community.”
It’s a good feeling, but it’s also a really bad feeling, like to know that there’s that many people that need to come out for this.– Lindsay Burry
In September, the program received an award from the Dryden District Chamber of Commerce for health and wellness, and Burry said this recognition shows that other community groups understand how much it’s needed.
“Some people are just really happy to have somewhere to go and talk to other people and be treated like people,” she said.
They also invite members of community agencies like the OPP, the Northwestern Health Unit and Adult and Teen Challenge to partake in the meals, which allows them to connect with people who may benefit from their services.
The cost of eating
Last spring, the average cost to feed a family of four in northwestern Ontario was $299.12 per week, or $1,295.18 per month, according to a food costing survey done by the Northwestern Health Unit.
The survey estimated that about one in seven people (14.3 per cent) in northwestern Ontario are food insecure, which is higher than the provincial average of about 11 per cent, states the health unit’s 2022 report, The Real Cost of Eating Well in Northwestern Ontario.
The root cause of food security is poverty, explained Zoe Brenner, a public health dietitian with the health unit.
She told CBC News that it’s important for people to recognize the complexities of food insecurity and its direct impact on people’s health.
There is often a big focus on individuals’ responsibilities – ways they can budget their money better and shop more strategically – but Brenner said the underlying issue is income inequality, not people’s spending habits.
“It really is this higher-level systemic issue that’s embedded in incomes, and affordable and accessible housing, and affordable and accessible healthcare and childcare,” she said.
When tough choices have to be made about which bills to pay, food and medication are often treated as “flexible expenses.”
What Brenner would like to see is a bigger push for living wage employers – those who pay their workers an amount determined to cover their costs of living. According to the Ontario Living Wage Network, living wage was calculated at $19.70 for northern Ontario in November, up from $16.30 in 2021.
Food bank sees higher demands
The Dryden Food Bank is also seeing more people use its services than before. Al Huckabay has been managing the program for four years. From March 2022 onward, the food bank saw a 14 per cent increase in use, month over month.
The food bank distributes food to clients weekly, with nearly 5,400 food hampers distributed in 2022, compared to 4,800 in 2021, Huckabay said. Last year, 577 clients were registered with the food bank, compared to 489 the previous year. The busiest month last year was July, but typically demands are greatest in the winter months.
People from surrounding communities are also using the food bank, like Vermilion Bay, Wabigoon First Nation, Eagle Lake First Nation, Eagle River and even Sioux Lookout.
Huckabay said the rise in demands coincided with the end of the federal government’s emergency relief funding, given out at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the funding streams dried up, inflation increased across the country, which meant the latter half of last year became harder for many people trying to get by.
A 2021 study from the University of Toronto showed that about half of people dealing with food insecurity in Ontario are part of the workforce.
“Their dollar has shrunk … and unfortunately, wages haven’t gone up accordingly,” Huckabay said.
The prices have also affected how much the food bank can offer, with staples like dairy products at top dollar. Huckabay said they have been fortunate to receive grants for protein and calcium-rich goods, but food banks in northwestern Ontario have less access to the deals available from southern suppliers.
And transportation costs directly correlate to the sticker shock people are seeing at the store.
“It’s just a spiraling effect that happens,” he said.
Huckabay is part of a group of community members looking at reviving plans to bring an emergency shelter to the city. While the project is in its early stages, he said he’s hopeful for the outcome.
“We’re in a discussion stage right now with it,” he said. “The biggest thing [is] we don’t want to just put a shelter up without other supports in place.”
But in his experience, when there’s a need, the community steps up to the plate.
“Sometimes circumstances in our lives get us to a point where we feel at times just hopeless and we don’t know what to do, and that’s where this community has [shown] me that it cares about its neighbour,” Huckabay said.