December 10, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

Saint-Henri food bank fights to stay open as lack of funds threatens services

A Saint-Henri food bank says it’s starting to cut services and is worried it might have to close its doors entirely if it can’t get more funding soon.

​​It’s already reduced its food basket distribution from three days per week to two and staff are working fewer hours. 

“Better to cut back somewhat now than to close the door later,” said Glenn Rubenstein, the general manager of Épicentre Saint-Henri.

“My fear is either to continue to cut back or possibly close food banks and that is the service that probably responds most directly to people in the most precarious situations.”

The non-profit is set up inside the Saint-Zotique church basement. It opened as an emergency measure when the pandemic hit in order to support those who lost their jobs and needed to make ends meet.

After getting funding from the city to start up, Rubenstein says the group has been without any government support since pandemic measures ended. That’s because Épicentre Saint-Henri is new and doesn’t yet have recognition from the province.

For younger organizations, it’s easier to get project-based funding than mission-based funding, says Rubenstein, which can make it tricky to get grants.

Demand growing as inflation rises

Rubenstein says the food bank hands out baskets to about 100 people every week and that, over the last two years, 2,000 people have benefited from the program.

Though the food bank receives community donations, it has to compliment the donated foods with purchased food to keep baskets nutritionally balanced. But with high inflation rates, more people in need of food and less donations, it’s struggling to keep up with demand.

Crates and shelves at the food bank.
Rubenstein says high food prices, fewer donations and an increase in demand is straining the food bank. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

Épicentre Saint-Henri isn’t the only food bank feeling the effects of inflation.

“I completely understand their worry,” said Amanda Ryan, the vice president of the Châteauguay Food Bank.

“It’s very expensive to run and the cost of food keeps rising and rising and rising and demand keeps increasing as well. So it’s like a never-ending battle to help everyone in the community.”

She says the food bank spends roughly $70,000 per year just on operating expenses, and the city covers its rent and electricity.

Symptom of larger problem

Ryan says the problem runs deeper than a lack of funding for food banks, which are meant to be a temporary solution to food insecurity.

“The government really needs to put in place different programs to be able to help people get by,” she said.

Changes like increasing the minimum wage, capping grocery prices and decreasing the “already crazily inflated prices of groceries definitely needs to be done,” she said.

“Everything needs to be worked on to help people, unfortunately.”

Access to nutritious food is another hurdle for those who use food banks.

Épicentre Saint-Henri, says Rubenstein, is in the middle of a food desert. He says there are no supermarkets in the neighbourhood and prices at dépanneurs are high.

“We believe everybody needs to eat and it’s a human right to have access to food. We try to offer our baskets to anybody who is in need and the needs are very great in a neighbourhood like ours,” he said.

Craig Sauvé wearing a black blazer standing in a yellow room.
Saint-Henri-Est-Petite-Bourgogne-Pointe-Saint-Charles-Griffintown councilor Craig Sauvé says the municipal government is meeting with Épicentre Saint-Henri to discuss its needs. (Chloë Ranaldi/CBC)

Proposed funding not enough

The provincial government announced $6 million would go to food banks across Quebec back in December.

But because there are hundreds of food banks in the province, the subsidies only come down to a few thousand dollars per organization.

“In the case of our particular food bank, we spend more than that amount per month just to buy dairy products. So it won’t go far for any one organization,” said Ryan.

Craig Sauvé, the councillor for Saint-Henri-Est–Petite-Bourgogne–Pointe-Saint-Charles–Griffintown, said he has been meeting with Épicentre Saint-Henri to discuss its needs and how additional funding can be secured. 

“Nobody wants them to shut their doors, they’re a new organization and they have really amazing projects on the way,” he said.

However, says Sauvé, subsidies from the provincial government are necessary as it has more money and power than the municipality.

“I have faith within the borough, within the city, and the provincial government needs to be at the table,” he said.

“They’re the ones who are responsible for economic development and fighting poverty and social services.”

Rubenstein says he is hoping to secure funding from the Quebec government so Épicentre can continue to serve the Saint-Henri community.