December 6, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

I spent a day volunteering at a St. John’s food bank. Here’s what I saw

A line of cans on a shelf with a woman reaching for one in the background
Food banks are on the front lines of what one advocate is calling a public health crisis, as the charities try to keep up with skyrocketing demand. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Lesley Burgess hands me a laminated list and points to a row of industrial shelves lining the walls, nearly sagging under the weight of canned food.

“We try to give everyone one of everything,” she tells me. Then go back, see what else the pantry can spare — maybe a box of Hamburger Helper, some ramen noodles.

“We’d rather people have too much food than too little,” she says, filling a cardboard box of her own.

I’m packing a food hamper, my first, for a senior woman. This client, like everyone who requests a package, gets a can of evaporated milk, some beans, a couple cans of soup. When it comes time to pick the vegetables, I’m stumped, trying to decide what might go best with the canned lasagna I’ve picked out for her.

Green beans? Green beans. 

A woman holds a plastic bag in a room surrounded by packaged food
Lesley Burgess, left, checks a list of requests from a walk-up client waiting for their hamper outside. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

I throw in some pasta, potatoes and mushroom soup, too. That was my own poverty meal, back when I was struggling to put myself through university — all of it boiled up together with whatever greens I could scavenge. A weird, gloopy casserole that kept me full, at least.

I turn to the volunteer beside me, a woman who later tells me she’s been working for this food bank for 17 years, back when it operated out of a church. 

“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” I ask her. “Deciding what meals somebody’s going to eat.”

I pick orange juice instead of apple, wondering if this client, because of her age, might need the extra vitamin C. Then I wondered if orange juice had more vitamins in it than apple. I’m no dietitian.

I added some fibre-rich cereal instead of the pre-portioned bags of Froot Loops, which I later discover are popular among some of the regulars lining up outside. I start second-guessing my choices. Who really wants muesli, anyway?

The woman I’m packing for gets four eggs, a fresh-baked loaf of bread and a single sleeve of crackers. I toss in a box of Rice Krispies, a few tea bags. No meat today, a staff worker tells me. They’re out of frozen beef.

A box of food on a shelf
Clients get one of these food hampers every month. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

I place the finished hamper on the shelves, the woman’s name taped to the box. Lesley looks over at me. “They get one of those a month,” she says. Then she points to a smaller box. That one’s for emergencies, enough food for a day or two, if someone’s already had their monthly hamper. 

My mouth drops open. The box I just filled, even stretched out, won’t last a week.

There’s simply not enough food to go around, Lesley sighs. Most people don’t realize a food bank can’t feed them all month long. It leaves them scrambling to fill the gap, she explains, relying on a medley of charities and community organizations to put even a meagre amount on their tables.

Food banks are a last resort. But what happens when the last resort fails?

Inflation breeding new class of working poor

Bridges to Hope, a stalwart of central St. John’s in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, sees plenty of regulars. The volunteers here have their favourites.

It’s also seen an influx of new clients in recent months — people in a completely different demographic than what the charity is used to.

Working people living on credit cards have lately been reaching out to the food bank for the first time, says director Jody Williams. He’s seen nurses and social workers whose partners are on sick leave, struggling to hold together a household on one income.

These days, he explains, it’s like a new subsection of people have appeared: there’s the middle class, which now lives like the lower middle class used to. Below those is what he calls the “upper poverty” level — people who historically would have the money to pay for groceries, to stay fed.

Now, especially as heat bills rise, their paycheques no longer go that far.

A man in a plaid shirt in an office chair with a grim look on his face
Jody Williams, director of Bridges to Hope, says he’s spending six times the non-profit’s budget on food compared to three years ago. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

“We’re in a public health crisis,” Williams says, describing how his annual budget for food now lasts only two months. He’s spending six times as much as he did in 2019, with the increase in food prices and demand simultaneously.

His own personal trips to the grocery store, he adds, have left him filled with dread, scrounging for sales and forgoing fresh produce. 

“I’m waiting for the government to step in here and to address this problem, because it’s an emergency,” he says.

Outside, a lineup forms. I hand over my second hamper to a man in his late 30s. He’s shy and thankful. A woman with a baby stroller waits beside him. An elderly couple, beside her.

Two Ukrainian women show up. They’re not the first refugees to ask for help, one of the volunteers tells me.

A woman holds a plastic bag filled with cans
Volunteers pack dozens of boxes and bags each morning the food bank is open. Bridges to Hope recently started opening on Wednesday evenings, to accommodate clients who work during business hours. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

I pack another few plastic bags for a man who asks for lots of fruit and vegetables. He has lots of allergies and no front teeth, he says, and hands back the apples as I get him a few more bananas instead. He tries to stay away from processed food, he tells me. 

The man tries to come inside to warm up. A worker gently declines his advances, and he leaves with a full backpack.

The pantry has been open less than two hours, but they’re already out of ravioli, two-packs of chicken burgers and frozen chunks of bologna. There’s not much protein left. We start handing out sardines.

As I leave, I notice my neighbour at the window, placing his order. He’s come to my door before, asking for leftovers or spare change to get him through the week, explaining that his food hamper had run out.

I understand now, a little better, what he has to do to survive.

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Donations will be accepted until midnight on Dec. 31.

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