Food Hampers by the numbers: 2009 in review

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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!

How many people came in, how many hampers did they take and why?

So what was 2009 like?  First, last year was the busiest on record for us. We gave out a total of 33,154 hampers between January and December to 9959 households representing over 22,000 people.  The 33,154 was a 15.5% increase in the number of hampers distributed over 2008 when we gave out 28,691 hampers.  To put that in context, you need to understand that we have been extremely busy the last few years.  2009 is part of a longer multi-year trend where demand has been high and relatively flat as illustrated by the following chart

Second, the demand at food programs like ours was high all across the country, and increased by about the same amount.  The recession played a big role in driving that increase in demand. However, the fundamental reasons for it were; no income due to sudden and/or prolonged unemployment, very low fixed income, and a lack of full-time or sufficiently paying employment. These have been a reality for longer than the last year.

When I talk about fixed income, I am mostly talking about programs like Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. These are programs that were cut in the 1990s, and for the most part have been left to erode a little each passing year from inflation.  To a lesser extent the sources of income people report can also include Employment Insurance, various pensions (Old Age, Canada Pension Plan), private disability insurance, WSIB, Immigration or private sponsorship, OSAP and more.  The following pie chart illustrates the different sources of income by visit and their share of the total number of hampers we served

As you can see Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) are the most common source of income for people when they request a food hamper.

High unemployment among certain groups like single, older men, without a high school education, single parents, and low-income families with children also contribute strongly to the demand for our services.  Many of these people are forced to rely on OW and ODSP.  When we look at the demographics of who is coming to us, it doesn’t change much year to year and is consistent with provincial and national numbers from similar programs.

Lack of educational or retraining opportunities, affordable childcare, affordable housing and obsolete skills in a changing labour force are all obstacles to food security that our patrons identify when asked.

How many hampers did people take?

One of the first questions people will ask me, when I’m describing my work, is often related to how many times we help people in a year.  There is a short and a long answer to that question.  The short version is that we can help people to a theoretical maximum of six times a year (twelve for seniors).   The long version is that this limit is not set in stone because we want to be able to remain sensitive to people’s variable and difficult situations. We do not want to let people fall through the cracks of the food assistance network and starve, yet at the same time, we don’t have an infinite supply of food on hand and need to ration it accordingly.  We have to walk a very fine line.

Different emergency food programs in different cities, provinces, and countries all have different limits and capacities.  Factors that influence the number of times someone can come can be determined by the number of people using their services, the depth of poverty they are experiencing, the supply of food, the philosophy of the organization, and the facilities they are using to name just a few.

Our program limits have been in place for some time now, and are a compromise between helping as much as we can, and balancing that against the food we have on hand.

So how many hampers did people take from our program last year?  The average for 2009 was 3.3 hampers per household.  The percentage of the 9959 households that we served who received between one and six hampers was 91%.  Less than 1% of the households we served received ten or more hampers.

How many first time visitors?

We are always very interested to find the number of new people coming to us for assistance – especially last year, as the economy slid further into recession. Furthermore, we were slightly concerned about the sudden influx of people, caused by rapid increases in unemployment, businesses scaling back, and businesses permanently shutting down locally as well as across Ontario.

Last year, at our program, 22% or 2213 of the total households we served were new.  On average, that worked out to about 7.5% of the households coming in each month being new to us.  Out of all the hampers we distributed, the new files accounted for 15% of the total 33,154 hampers

Many people, who were coming to us, for the first time, expressed that they had donated in the past, but never expected to be in a situation where they would need to receive help.  Another common theme; people waiting over a month (or more) to receive Employment Insurance benefits and having no income during that period of time.

How did we do it?

Handing out this record number of food hampers would have been impossible without a lot of volunteers.  The work that happens at our warehouse isn’t the whole story when it comes to volunteerism.  The people who come in to work with us each day are carrying forward the work of countless others in the community that we will never have the opportunity to meet. Many have raised funds, talked to their neighbours/faith group/service club about donating food, donated food themselves, volunteered to drive the trucks that carried the food to us, sorted the non-perishable items at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, and countless other tasks.  Without all that effort, none of the work we do day-to-day, would happen.

The people that we see, the volunteers in our warehouse, come from all walks of life, and all parts of the world.  The last time I did a survey of our volunteers they could collectively speak 16 different languages.  That really comes in handy when you’re trying to explain to someone who doesn’t speak much English what soy milk is!

Just at our program more than 150 people volunteered over 13,000 hours of their time.  In terms of time spent volunteering, ten of our volunteers contributed 40% of the total number of hours.  Of those ten people, most have been volunteering with the program since 2002 or earlier. The top 25 volunteers, in terms of time spent volunteering, contributed 63% of the total volunteer hours last year.  The average number of hours spent volunteering at the program is 85 hours (the median value is 24.8 hours).

That is a tremendous amount of time and effort, freely given, to help complete strangers, day after day.

How you can help

We are always looking for volunteers to help out in our warehouse.  If you think you might be interested in working with a lot of food, and a great team of volunteers, please give us a call at 519-742-0662. Ask for our volunteer coordinator Matt G.

We also gratefully accept donations of food, new or gently used household goods and money  year-round.  Your support allows us to make a difference in lives of countless people in Waterloo Region.

Food items that are in high demand include:

  • Baby formula
  • Rice
  • Peanut Butter
  • Canned meat and fish
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Dried beans and legumes
  • Breakfast Cereal

Non food items in high demand include:

  • Bus tickets
  • Diapers, wipes, nursing pads, baby shampoo
  • Hygiene items like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, pads and tampons
  • Laundry and dish detergent
  • Toilet paper

You can drop donations off at 807 Guelph Street in Kitchener, Monday to Friday, between 8:30 and 4:00.

Do you, or your employer, have spare warehouse capacity or cooler space?  We are often in  need of short-term offsite storage to accommodate unexpected large donations of perishable and non perishable food items.   If you are able to share space with us please call 519-742-0662.

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