Archive for April, 2010

Out of the cold, out of the way?

April 30, 2010

To most people May 1 will be a typical day: you may get up to go to work, do some errands, visit family, or follow some other regular routines. However for over two thousand people in Kitchener-Waterloo this is the start of a six month challenge to find a regular, safe place to sleep.  April 30th is the last night the Out of the Cold program, which is hosted by various churches in the region, will be open until November. To mark the end of these churches providing emergency shelter and meals, the Kitchener Downtown Community Center organizes an event called “Sleepless Night” to raise awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness. To test your understanding of some of the  homelessness issues, click here or here.

During the next six months, many of the homeless individuals and families that have accessed Out of the Cold will be relying on other shelters, community meal services, and emergency food hampers for basic survival. Those who seek emergency shelter will be hoping to get the same wake up calls for work that they got from Out of the Cold; or that there are enough beds for them to have a safe, warm place to sleep. Others will anxiously wait in a long line-up to hope that there will be enough dinner plates for the crowd until they can reach the front of the line. And a few will turn to emergency food hamper programs to receive a few items of food so they may have a quiet meal on their own.

Homelessness and Emergency Food Hampers

With one less meal program available some patrons will turn to emergency food hamper program to receive a few items of food. When a patron informs us that they are homeless, this may alter the type of hamper we have to offer. If they’re able to temporarily stay with friends or family, we can offer a regular food hamper – as they have access to a fridge and cooking facilities. However it does come up from time to time that people are living in tents or simply finding anywhere to sleep on the streets.  In this case, the hamper is generally limited to non-perishable products such as cans with pop tab lids that are easy to open and ready to eat. Patrons without any roof over their head are leery of accepting any fresh vegetables and fruits or meat as these food items may attract animals, making it unsafe to sleep at night. So, for example, instead of receiving fresh vegetables in a hamper we’ll provide them with a supply of canned vegetables as a safer alternative.

Substituting canned foods in a hamper are helpful but present a challenge of their own to homeless patrons because it is difficult to carry a large amount of food with them. As these patrons are likely carrying all their belongings with them in a back pack or cart, this leaves a limited amount of space to store a large amount of canned foods. However even with a lot of space to store canned foods, they likely have a limited amount of energy or strength to constantly carry everything around with them.

Carrying a lot of canned foods can be a burden, but accessing food programs can also relieve a burden. When a homeless patron receives a food hamper this can be the beginning of a connection to other resources. Being given connections or referrals to other resources may be new to many patrons as most shelter and meal programs simply only have the energy, time or funding to deal with the day-to-day basics of food and shelter rather than long-term assistance and support.

How closing Out of the Cold affects the Charles Street Mens Hostel

The Mens Hostel operates all year round to provide short-term shelter and nutritious meals for those in need, similar to the Out of the Cold program. Two of the main differences between the Mens Hostel and Out of the Cold are that the Mens Hostel conducts an intake or registration process, and the Mens Hostel encourages patrons to work with a case worker. These changes become evident during the six months that Out of the Cold closes, when the Mens Hostel sees a spike in demand for shelter and services like meals.

Out of the Cold generally calculates the number of patrons who come in each night by counting heads; where as the Mens Hostel completes a longer intake procedure to collects a patron’s name and some more in depth information. So when Out of the Cold ends, the patrons that choose to use emergency shelters are faced with new protocols to receive a warm bed at the end of the night. Out of the Cold patrons generally prefer to keep their anonymity; so Hostel caseworkers are presented with a new and somewhat more challenging group of men to support. Instead of simply providing a place to rest your head at the end of the night, and some food throughout the day, the Hostels’ caseworkers want to support patrons in obtaining social assistance, permanent housing, and steady employment.

The caseworkers at the Hostel provide patrons with a supportive system to establish goals and tasks to complete that will improve their circumstances and get them off the streets. For many of the patrons who used Out of the Cold, this is not their cup of tea. Many use emergency shelters to escape a cold night on the street, but aren’t necessarily interested in working with someone to find permanent housing and a steady employment. However the Hostel caseworkers are not quitters! Most times these patrons have come to a hostel for a place to sleep, and don’t expect  to find someone who is willing to help them, so absorbing this shock takes some time. And the dedicated staff understand the struggle people face with making dramatic changes in their life, so they allow these patrons a few extra days to warm up to the idea of working with a stranger.

When the Out of the Cold program closes many people are still left struggling. Many volunteers and donations have helped take care of them for a few months, to which the patrons are grateful. But as a society we need to remember that when the cold is out of the way, these people are not – they’re still out there looking for a helping hand.

2010 Hunger Count Preview

April 29, 2010

March is a challenging time of year for Emergency Food Programs and food banks in general.  It tends to be one of the busier months in the year with supplies from the last food drive running low and lots of time and effort being expended getting the spring food drive off the ground.

It is also when the Hunger Count data is collected.  Each year the national association of food banks, Food Banks Canada works with regional food banks like the Food Bank of Waterloo Region (FBWR) to collect stats from all the member food banks and hamper programs so they can draft the Hunger Count. This is a comprehensive report on demand for emergency food assistance that is released each year. (more…)

Rice is a family favourite

April 26, 2010

There is a Japanese proverb from the Lord’s Prayer that translates to “a meal without rice is no meal.” Todays discussion of rice is the third piece in a series of patron reflections regarding staple foods such as pasta, potatoes, canned meat and fish, and peanut butter. On a fairly regular basis our program only has the supplies of rice to offer one 500 gram bag to families of three people or more. Therefore many families are often forced to go without rice for any meal or dish, which is very challenging.

“Hey, why don’t we get rice anymore? It used to be a big staple for me but now I can’t afford it.” – Single man, mid 50s

“Not having rice is pretty depressing…lowers your self-esteem and you don’t feel good about yourself.” – Single male, 40s

The fact that rice is a very nutritious side dish is one reason patrons stated that they enjoy having rice at home. A female in her 40s comments that rice is her families’ preferred choice for a side dish because the calorie and fat contents are miniscule. Rice is a complex carbohydrate which digests slowly in the body, so you’re able to hold on to the useable energy for a longer period of time. Rice is also low in sodium, high in protein and gluten free – it’s a healthy food that is appropriate for any diet.

Special diets are something our program tries to accommodate as much as possible. One father of 4 that I spoke to, who has his mother living with his family, is thankful for our supply rice as his mother suffers from Celiac’s disease. For his family rice is one of the easiest side dishes to accommodate her special diet while meeting the needs of his family. Most of the gluten-free foods are expensive, hard to find, and rarely donated in food drive collections. Therefore when rice isn’t available at home, “it’s difficult because you have to re-plan so many meals…try to accommodate five diets and then you’re limited on what you can do.”

“It can be easier to buy pasta and rice…When money is low fruits and vegetables fall to the bottom of a shopping list… they don’t last as long. When I buy lots of rice then I need to access food assistance for fruits and vegetables.” – Single female, 30s

“If you don’t have rice, you’re really poor. I think it’s one of the cheapest foods.” – Female, 40s

Many people accessing emergency food assistance are living with fixed incomes. Therefore it is hard to stretch the budget to find room for rice in between the need for fruits and vegetables, meat, and milk. A single mom with four children often feels like she can’t afford rice unless it’s on sale though; “It’s hard for me because I always try to make sure the kids don’t know there’s not a lot there, so I look through my cupboards and cook whatever I have.” Without rice her family has to find new side dishes and a different base for the lentils and beans they often eat.

“Well it’s not great…rice is a filler.” – Single mom with 3 kids, late 40s

“They miss the rice (when it’s not at home)…Rice is a basic food in my home country – you eat in the lunch and in the dinner – sometimes you eat for breakfast with eggs.”” – Female, later 40s

Rice is an essential food to many cultures including European, Asian and Central American. In these cultures most meals often incorporate rice into stuffed peppers, casseroles, side dishes, stir-fries, and much more. For one mom of three children rice is probably the most important food to have at home, as her husband feels like he needs to have rice with at least one meal every day of his life. But he’s learning to slowly adjust to not eating rice all the time since the family cannot afford it, which isn’t easy for anyone. “My family feels very depressed. I work full-time but don’t feel like it’s worth anything since I still can’t afford food. I develop illnesses because we don’t eat well.”

“Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook”Chinese saying

Food Hampers by the numbers: 2009 in review

April 23, 2010

It may seem a little late into 2010 to talk about the 2009 statistics for the program, but generating reliable statistics can be a complicated task for us here at the Food Hamper Program.  Part of the problem is time, and part of it is our database. The database is an older system that does the day-to-day booking of hampers very well, but doesn’t generate the charts, statistics and reports we need at the push of a button.

If we want to answer a basic question like, “How many households we served in the first 3 months of the year?” what we have to do is extract a lot of raw data, and work with it in a different program to get the answer.  Stats like this, and more nuanced ones, help us to understand who is coming to us, how many people are using our services, and their basic demographics.

This year, we managed to complete the process by mid February, but since then we’ve been carefully looking for errors, and making sure everything adds up correctly.  This process is done in addition to our usual work of receiving and distributing food, and working with our volunteers and program patrons during some of the busiest months of the year.  I’m happy to report that the process is now finished thanks to a lot of hard work by my coworkers, primarily Nadir! (more…)

A potato makes friends in any dish and in any stomach

April 19, 2010

This article is the second in a series of posts based on staple foods, which include foods such as pasta, potatoes, rice, canned meat and fish, and peanut butter.  Previously I talked about “Who doesn’t love pasta?”, and shared what patrons had to say through a few questions I posed to them while they waited in our lobby.  Now it’s the potato’s time to shine! (Yes even though Emily wrote about potatoes through the whole month of February, we still have things to write about our friend the potato.)

“Potatoes can be expensive…so I borrow money or come here.” – Single woman in her 50s, who has raised 5 children.

Despite the fact that potatoes are one of the cheapest vegetable to buy, it doesn’t mean that a food budget always has the room to stretch to buy the smallest bag of potatoes. One of the largest groups of people accessing emergency food are those living with fixed incomes. Therefore, when it comes to the limited amount of money they have for food, it’s often a choice: do you buy more of foods like rice or pasta that won’t spoil? Or the perishable products like vegetables? What do you do when you don’t have the money to make that choice? That’s when people find themselves accessing emergency food programs to get the foods they need like potatoes and other vegetables, or they are left in a situation where they are forced to live without. (more…)

Charles Street Men’s Hostel

April 16, 2010

When it comes to emergency food assistance at House of Friendship, most people think of our Emergency Food Hamper program.  However, this kind of assistance is provided through other House of Friendship programs as well.  Take for example, the Charles Street Men’s Hostel.

In 1939, when House of Friendship was founded, part of the original mandate was to provide emergency assistance for homeless men. What originated as a men’s mission on King Street has grown and moved to two different locations, settling at its current location at 63 Charles Street East, Kitchener, in 1982. (more…)


April 15, 2010

We’ve all seen this happen at the grocery store…

Once in a while a grocery cart will go for an unexpected trip far away from home, possibly to never be returned. Unfortunately, this happened to our  program a few weeks ago,  one of our blue metal carts went missing. This isn’t the first time this has happened.  Sometimes our carts are found, but this one is currently missing.  Initially we had five metal carts, now we have four. The carts are important to the program because we use them to pack our patron’s hampers, to transport food and donations throughout the program.

If you see this cart wandering, please give us a call at 519-742-0662. No questions asked. We will come and pick it up.

our sad missing cart

On the same day that our blue cart went missing, a patron donated a flat bed cart. What timing! Although this cart was a little rough around the edges, made of wood and missing a top shelf , it was about to be given a new life by one of our staff members…

One of warehouse staff, Raymond, uses a lot of ingenuity when we are in need. For example, he has made our famous bun/bread bin you see in our lobby, and our new potato bins in the warehouse. Many of the supplies for these two projects were purchased, however, in the case of the cart, Raymond was able to make the necessary improvements with left over plywood, a strip of aluminum, nuts and bolts, screws, and two brackets. These materials have been donated over time to the program and are stored in secret location for possible future projects, like our new cart shown below. Even the tools used for this project were donated to us. Et voilà, here is the result of some hard work…

thank you eddie!

On the surface, “Eddie” the new cart may not seem so handsome, but, he performs well under the most hazardous road conditions.  More importantly, he gets the job done. He has been fondly named “Eddie”. I like to think of him as “Eddie the Super Cart”…   A mix of cutting edge technology meets a warm human heart.

Eat the math. A tale of two cities…

April 13, 2010

The Stop Community Food Centre is an amazing program in Toronto that we have had the opportunity to visit twice in the last five years.

Their website describes their growth from one of Canada’s first food banks into a “thriving community hub where neighbours participate in a broad range of programs that provide healthy food, as well as foster social connections, build food skills and promote engagement in civic issues.”

They have a real community atmosphere, and their facilities are welcoming friendly spaces that include “community kitchens and gardens, cooking classes, drop-in meals, peri-natal support, a food bank, outdoor bake ovens, food markets and community advocacy.”

This past summer, when we went for our last tour, we were all impressed by the new programs they had added since our previous visit (namely their gorgeous Green Barn), and their commitment to making a difference in the lives of the people coming to their centre and living in the city.

One initiative that they were just in the process of rolling out was Do The Math a web-based excercise that lets people put themselves in the shoes of a Ontario Works recipient trying to budget for a month.  I recommend you do it and share it with everyone you can! It’s a very eye-opening exercise in futility that reveals the brutal choices tens of thousands of people have to make each day in order to survive.

To highlight these choices and how hard their consequences, (i.e. food insecurity and hunger) can be each day they have challenged some high profile Torontonians to see how far they can stretch an emergency food hamper from the Stop and to talk about it on a collective blog.

So far the participants have expressed thoughts and experiences that we often hear at our program from new volunteers, new staff and first time visitors.  They’re overwhelmed by the level of need and the challenge that accessing and using emergency food can be.  In the Toronto Star yesterday  Dr. David McKeown, the Toronto Medical Officer of Health identified the lack of choice as a major difficulty for him, stating:

“Food is a very important part of our life and I didn’t get to eat any of the things that I enjoy. In work settings, and family settings with friends, I couldn’t join in with the food that was part of the events. So there is a sense of isolation that you get when you are not able to be a part of what others who have more resources are enjoying. Food is very much a part of our family and cultural life.”

Hunger is a complicated issue and there are a lot of misconceptions, stereotypes and judgements that get mixed into most public debates about how to address it.  Some of the comments made by Toronto city councilor Joe Mihevc,  at the press conference that kicked off the challenge, highlight the need for a better, broader discussion about the issues.

In fact, Mihevc’s entire family took part in the challenge.  In the Star one of his daughters talks about how her parents used drop in meal programs to help stretch their hamper a little further, stating, “I wasn’t really hungry but that’s because my mom and dad let my sister and me eat before they ate.”

Poverty and food insecurity present you with many stark choices and force you to prioritize.  Visit the dentist or buy a winter coat?   Pay the hydro or the rent (and get evicted later anyways when they shut off your hydro)?  Go hungry so your kids can eat today or all go hungry together later when all the food is gone?

Are these the choices that people should have to make?

Who doesn’t love pasta?

April 12, 2010

For a week I took a few breaks during the day, from my regular role of helping people book in food hampers, to ask patrons some simple questions on staple foods that tend to make it into food bank donation bins. These are items  such as pasta, potatoes, rice, canned meat and fish, and peanut butter. I love pasta, which probably explains why I chose to write this article before one of the other four staple foods.

Pasta is a staple food in most households, since it’s such a versatile food item that can be incorporated into almost any dish or meal. Therefore, it’s no surprise that at the moment the Food Bank’s website lists canned pasta and macaroni and cheese as the top ten most needed food donations. The Food Bank is hoping to collect these items to meet the demand of more 25 000 people in the Kitchener-Waterloo who access emergency food programs and likely rely on pasta for a cost-efficient, quick to prepare, filling meal at home.

“What’s it like (when pasta isn’t around)…feels terrible…you have kids at home and nothing to feed them…pasta is a good cheap way to go.” – Male, 20s

For some pasta is a household favourite for a relatively cheap meal. One of the volunteers at our program reminisced back to a time when someone could purchase ten boxes of Kraft Dinner for one dollar. At that point in his life, this was very significant because Kraft dinner was a cheap food to keep his stomach full after he became injured and was unable to return to work. Pasta was the easiest solutions to get help him through such a rough time. “Now it wouldn’t kill me to not have pasta…but it’d be a disappointment…you get a hunger for that every now and then, you know?” So he continues to eat pasta to this day, but rarely Kraft dinner, and makes time to be more creative in how he prepares his pasta.

Pasta is a quick dish to prepare that you don’t have to add a lot of other food items to in order to achieve a great tasting meal. Time is never something anyone seems to have enough of and this likely reveals another reason that pasta is a staple in many households. A single man in his 50s had a great way to reflect on why he regularly eats pasta: “Working off and on is hard. You can’t always spend time cooking when you’re always out looking for work. You get tired and need something quick.” When you’re low on energy after a busy day, pasta is exactly that: a quick meal to prepare, or a tasty side dish to add to another meal that leaves you with a full stomach.

“When all you have is meat it’s like I’m only eating half a meal…you miss those sides, you know?” – Male, 50s

For a fair number of people, pasta is more of a meal than a side dish though. So things can become complicated when it’s not available at home. This involves re-planning some of your regular meals or going without a favourite food. A single mother of two boys mentioned that without pasta at home: “It’s a pain in the butt! Pasta feeds a lot and it’s cheap. It’s a heavy meal.” This leaves her searching, like many other families would be, to find another meal to fill their stomachs on a limited budget.

“Healthy food is quite expensive…pasta helps manage things in the best way.”
– Female in her 40s from a family of 5

“When you’re in low-income, you’re in constant survival mode…you don’t often have choices. You just use what you have.” – Female in her 50s from a family of 5

Giving more than food

April 8, 2010

When I think of a food bank, I generally think of a program that provides food for people who are in need. It doesn’t occur to me that there would be other programing for food assistance. However, our neighbours in Cambridge at The Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank have more than an emergency food program. It operates a food co-operative for individuals and families in low-income situations. Aside from providing a consistent source of groceries, it allows members to build skills, by letting them volunteer in different areas of the program; from the warehouse, to maintenance, or in administrative support.  These opportunities allow for personal growth in working with others and with the public; essential skills for many who are preparing to enter/re-enter the job market.

Then an article was recently circulated at work, talking about another way food banks can offer affordable staple foods. It gives the individual choice of what foods he or she would like to purchase, and it allows them to keep their dignity when having to access a food program because of their current circumstances.  This program is the first of  its kind in Canada.  Kudos to both organizations for thinking outside of the box!

Here is the link to read the article:

Regina Food Bank opens Village Market grocery store