2010 Hunger Count Preview

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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.

You can read the previous year’s report here.

Collecting stats is a constant process with us. Each month we generate a report outlining the number of households using our service in that month, the number of hampers per household, the family types, sources of income given for each household’s visit and the range of family sizes.

The Hunger Count is more in depth than our usual monthly stats because Food Banks Canada is trying to get a very detailed snap shot of hunger in the province and across the country.  All these different stats are collected from the various programs, combined, analyzed and then published sometime later in the year.

I can only imagine how much work it must be to coordinate all that information and the painstaking effort it must be to combine it all and then analyze it.  It is a real challenge to just generate the stats for our program alone and I can’t imagine adding together all the stats for the majority of the programs across the country.

So, what was March like at the Emergency Food Hamper Program?  Well, thanks to a lot of hard work from Michele, and the other intake workers, we’ve got our report together and I can share some of the answers to the big questions with you now that we’ve submitted it to FBWR.  When the provincial and national numbers are released I’ll blog about them and do a compare and contrast of our numbers versus theirs.

What was the total number of hampers distributed in March, the number of unique households and total number of people served?

During the entire month of March, we distributed 3305 emergency food hampers to 2831 households representing 6773 people.  This is actually more hampers than we distributed in March 2009 which was surprising, and yet again, set the record for the highest number of hampers distributed in a single month.  Part of this has to do with the fact that we were open an extra day this year and we were also slightly busier overall during the month.

Each one of these slips represents a food hamper that we packed during the month of March. Each bundle represents a single day.

The age breakdown of the 6773 people was as follows:

Age range Number of people
Number of children (0-12) 1818
Number of youth (13-17) 718
Number of adults (18-64) 4052
Number of seniors (65+) 185

As you can see, most of the people we served were adults, but a significant amount of the food went to children.  The smaller number of seniors are mostly living independently, but still struggling to make ends meet with their fixed incomes.  Quite a few of them are single and are physically unable to come to our program due to their health and we have to deliver the food to them with the assistance of our one volunteer driver.

The number of new households that we served was 179.  In 2009 we assisted 178 new households in March.  In January of this year we setup 140 new files versus 200 last year and 161 this February versus 180 the previous one.

What is the family make-up for each household served in March?

In general, family demographics are generally fairly consistent throughout the year.  In March 2010 there were no surprises:

Family Make-up: Number of Households
Single-parent family 585
Two-parent family 693
Couples with no children 260
Single people 1277
Multi-generational family 16

Single people generally make up the bulk of our caseload, followed by single parents and low-income families in the proportions we saw this March.

What is the primary source of income for each household you served in March?

Each month is generally similar to the others when we look at the sources of income people declare when they come in for a hamper.  Ontario Works and Ontario Disability is the primary source of income for most of our patrons each month.

Income Type Number of Households
Full-time employment 169
Part-time employment 235
Employment insurance (EI) 127
Ontario Works (welfare) 1108
ODSP (Government Disability Plan) 622
Private Disability Plan 0
Pension income 143
Student loans/scholarships 17
Other Income 165
No Income 245
Total: 2831

What is the living situation of each household you served?

The next question that the Hunger Count asks is the type of housing, or lack thereof, that our patrons are living in.  We don’t ask people what their housing type is, and it’s not something that we can easily track with our existing intake procedure, so we were unable to answer these questions.  My impression is that the vast majority of our patrons are living in rental housing.  A very small percentage are without homes and living on the street. There are usually one or two people that I speak with during the month who are without housing of their own and are “couch surfing” and living with friends of family temporarily.

On average, in March, how many days worth of food did you provide?

In the past this would have been a difficult question to answer, but for the last few years we have been auditing our hampers on a daily basis to try and keep track of how we’re covering the food groups.  This is all thanks to Melissa.  She keeps careful tabs on what’s on the table and the cooler and works out the food values according to the food guide.  So, for March, we were giving out an average of 3.5 days worth of food.  This is based on the assumption that people are starting with nothing in their cupboards and fridge and are solely using the food from the hamper.

How many volunteers were at your program during March and how long did they volunteer?

We had a lot of new people starting in March, and a few high school students who were trying get some of their mandatory community service hours done during their March break.  In total we had 65 different volunteers in the warehouse helping out at one time or another. They contributed 1120 hours of labour!

In the past twelve months, did your hamper program do any of the following: Run out of food? Give people less that usual (because you were running out)? Buy food (more than usual, or when you usually do not)? Close early or not open (due to lack of food)?  Turn people away without food (because you ran out)?

The only thing from that list that we ended up doing was giving people less food than usual because we were running out.  That is not to say that we do not frequently run out of certain items.  Rice, peanut butter, pasta, soup and bread will occasionally or frequently run out depending on the time of year and the demand.  There are only a few items that we have the budget to purchase at the program, namely diapers, formula and halal meat (thanks to the continued and generous donations from the local Muslim community).

We have never completely run out of food or altered our hours due to shortages.  We ration items based on demand and turn to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region for additional support when our warehouse starts clearing out.  There are definitely days where we are not proud of the hampers we’re giving out but we always have something to give people. If they need to come back we always try and help them to the best of our ability.

What resources does your program lack the most?

Space, food and excess storage are at the top of our list of most needed items day-to-day. I’ve already spoken about our fluctuating food supply in other posts, so I’ll mention storage and space now.

The challenge for food programs like ours is that often there are large donations that businesses want to make, but we lack the space in our warehouse or cooler to take them, store them properly and then distribute them in an orderly manner.  Think of what it’s like when you visit family for some of those big holiday meals and your grandma sends you home with an arm full of leftovers.  You love her cooking, but you only have so much space in your fridge.  We have the same problem!  It’s a good problem to have, but still, it can be a struggle because the space we use for storage is also the space we use to repackage, sort, stage and distribute food.

Our warehouse staff, namely, Raymond, Anton and Matt G work very hard to make it all fit like a big jigsaw puzzle.  Maybe some of you will be familiar with the classic game Tetris.   Some days it feels like we are playing a life-size version of that game.

For example in the fall two years ago there was a huge amount of potatoes that farmers were looking to donate because they had a bumper crop and even they didn’t have the storage space to keep them.  We were maintaining an inventory of about five or six thousand pounds in our warehouse and yet more kept coming.  We had to struggle to find and coordinate multiple offsite storage sites for the excess.  Thankfully, Trevor at Herrle’s Country Farm Market was extremely generous with his facilities and stored some of the excess into the winter for us.  We never want to say no to a donation because we will always need the food later.

Despite all of the wonderful food donations and support from folks like Trevor, like you and other charities in our community, we still face the challenge of paying our monthly bills.   The Region of Waterloo helps cover some of the costs of food hampers, and the United Way of Kitchener Waterloo kicks in an annual grant to help out with some program costs.  But we can’t be sure this support will always be there.  Even with this support, like a lot of the program patrons we serve, we struggle to make ends meet.  And yet somehow, we make it through, thanks to help from a lot of folks who send in a donation or support the February Potato Blitz.  The Blitz that just wrapped up received over $21,000 in cash donations.  That helps.  You see, it may not always be pretty, but with a little creative effort from our volunteers and staff, some help from our friends and donors we get the job done.  And that’s what counts.

During which months are your stocks of food the lowest?

Paradoxically, the summer can be the period of time when stocks of food are low even though there is a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables in season.  We tend to have fewer non-perishable items in the summer months but that is balanced by lower numbers of people coming to us.  Last year, June had some of the worst weeks to come for a hamper for most of the family sizes.  This was partly because we were still waiting for items collected in the spring food drive to come through to us and local produce was not yet in season.  On the other hand, February was one of the better months last year to get a food hamper. We received high volumes of perishable produce from our local suppliers via the Food Bank of Waterloo Region even though we were serving record numbers of people day after day.

What three types of food are you lacking the most?

Milk, fresh vegetables and meat are all items that fluctuate a little more than we would like throughout the year.  We are very fortunate to have the supply that we do have, but still, we don’t have enough to consistently provide a balanced and well-rounded hamper.  Fluid cow’s milk is something that is in very high demand.  In 2009 we received an average of 372L of milk in 1L cartons each week, but usually served around 600 households.  Thanks to Mornington Dairy, we’ve been able to supplement that with a significant amount of goat’s milk, but still, there are days when some families get very little or no milk products in their hamper.  At most, families can expect to get less than three days supply of fluid milk, usually, much less.  Without the regular donations of goats milk the majority of households would get nothing.  This is a considerable source of stress for many of the people we serve.

In conclusion

Once the Hunger Count is released we’ll know how the rest of the province coped with providing emergency food assistance during March.  If we’re any indication the need for help is still going strong and has yet to fall back from the all time high of 2009.

On the bright side, the spring and summer tends to see a decrease in the demand for emergency food and our program quiets down a bit.  If we see strong demand into the summer we’ll know we’re in trouble for the rest of the year and that 2010 will be another record breaker overall.

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