Where we go from here…

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In a previous post, I provided information about the hamper audit, and statistics from the 2009 hampers – but how does that translate into our hampers each day and where do we go from here? First here’s a reminder of the 2009 overall averages for each food category and family size:

Grains Dairy Vegetables and Fruit Meat (and alternatives)
One person 5.4 2.3 9.2 5.6
Two people 3.7 2.0 5.8 4.3
Three people 3.8 1.9 6.3 3.1
Four people 3.3 1.8 5.7 2.8
These figures represent the average number of days a hamper in 2009 would last for each family size, based on the upper limit of the number of daily recommended servings for each food group from Canada’s Food Guide values.

Second, we’ll discuss each category in terms of the gaps and challenges we face in reaching our three to five-day goal of food. Then I will give some insight to the ‘tricks of the trade’ in boosting averages when possible and finally, I’ll wrap it all up with some food for thought.Grains

Grains are one area where we’ve consistently provided three days (or more) of food, which is thanks to the many donations of cereal, pasta, rice and bread we frequently have available. However, these products are not always available for all family sizes, or at all times. For example, since September 2009 we have only been able to supply one small bag of rice for families of three or more people, when we have any. Another example is cereal, which means that when supplies are limited single patrons are unable to receive a box.

When items are unavailable, it lowers the number of days that a hamper will last. So this is where our ‘tricks of the trade’ come in handy! When one product is unavailable or limited, we often compensate by offering another product such as oatmeal, waffles, crackers, taco shells, barley, etc. Yes these items may not always provide the perfect alternative, but these substitutions allow us to continue offering the most nutritious hamper possible based on our resources. Fortunately these options have worked out well, thanks to the efforts of the Food Bank, they have had alternatives available for substitutions during any lulls.

Scale is another issue we have to struggle with.  A single person is going to get more mileage out of a single box of cereal than a family of three or four. That is why rice is often reserved for larger families, and they will also receive larger quantities of bread, oatmeal etc. when we have more of those items.

An additional challenge is the best by dates on many of the items we have.  Rice is something that you can store for a while, but a lot of the bread we receive is in our building because it is too close to its purchase by date to be sold.  Everyone knows what it is like when you are at the grocery store.  You are going to check the dates on the bags on the bread rack and take the loaf with the best one.  What happens to the bag with the date a few days from now stamped on it?  Well, depending on the store, the Food Bank  probably picks it up and brings it to one of its many member agencies like us.  Otherwise it goes in the garbage. Checking and managing the bread at our program is a constant task and if we hold on to bread for too long it starts turning interesting shades of blue and white.  Our patrons also have this problem if they get the bread from us.  If it doesn’t go in the freezer at home quickly, it will likely spoil before they can use it all.

Dairy

Our main supplier of milk is the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, via the Ontario Association of Food Banks, who in turn receive over a million litres a year from Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), the Ontario Dairy Council (ODC), and the Ontario Milk Transporters Association (OMTA). Our cut is a weekly average of 423 liters of cow’s milk. Yes this is a lot, but here’s an idea of how far we need to stretch this: If we gave out one liter in each hamper, when we dispense a daily average of 137 hampers, we would run through our shipment in about three days, meaning we would have no milk for two days. Therefore to help extend supplies between shipments, single patrons are often unable to receive any cow’s milk. Given this fact, no one should be surprised as to why we consistently fall short in providing a three to five-day supply of dairy in our hampers.

Because our limited supply of cow’s milk isn’t sufficient to provide enough nutrition, we also utilize other calcium rich donations such as cheese, cream and yogurt. Doing this helps us alleviate some of the pressure we face in providing a boost of or any of dairy in our hampers. One of the most popular and frequent “calcium” alternatives we have in our hampers is goat’s milk from Mornington Dairy. Their constant support throughout the year is something we have come to rely on, since we don’t have room in our budget to purchase any dairy supplies.

While our dairy struggle has become easier since Mornington Dairy began donating goat’s milk, we still have a long road of improvement ahead of us. Even with their constant support we fell short of our three to five-day goal by more than a full day. So if you remember nothing else, please remember this: we’re always willing to accept (white or chocolate) milk donations from any source (goat, sheep, rice, almond, coconut, cow, soy, buttermilk, etc).

Vegetables and Fruit

Thankfully this is one area that we don’t have to worry about as much – something that makes us unique among the local and provincial food assistance programs. However, this is largely due to the nutritional value of potatoes. Essentially, in our hampers potatoes represent on average a 4.3 day vegetable supply for singles; 2.1 day vegetable supply for families of two and four persons; and a 2.9 day vegetable supply for families of three people. This is pretty significant and since our patrons love potatoes, we’re very appreciative of all the financial (and potato bags) donations we get during our Potato Blitz. These donations go a long way to helping the many House of Friendship programs and patrons we serve. Without these donations we wouldn’t be able to offer this much-needed vegetable, since our budget would not be able to cover the considerably large expense to supply our program with enough potatoes for our hampers.

Obviously potatoes have a lot of power in this category, but we also make use of other donations to provide variety and a notable amount of food. Thankfully this is possible because our many donors such as Loblaws, local farmers, Elmira Produce Auction, Pfennings Organic, Herrle’s Country Farm Market, Jay West Wholesale Produce and the Ontario Christian Gleaners – to name a few. Together these organizations and businesses help fill the stomachs of our patrons and our walk-in cooler.

What sets us apart is our relatively larger facilities, fork lift and cooler/freezer that help us handle, store and distribute these donations in a timely manner.  The challenge of many smaller programs locally and across the province is to find these donations in the first place and then receive and store them in smaller, residential coolers/freezers in church basements, the back rooms of community centres and other spaces not originally intended for food distribution and storage.

Meat (and alternatives)

One of the most challenging aspects of this category is to provide a consistent amount throughout the year. I’m glad to see the overall averages generally equal out to a three to five-day range, but I feel like we’re lower more often than higher. The reason I feel this way is because peanut butter is what often keeps our averages high; as it represents anywhere from four to an eight-day supply of protein, depending on the family size. Therefore when this protein friendly product is not available for our hampers, we need to substitute in other products such as extra canned meat or canned beans. To some families this may be a welcome substitute, since they don’t eat peanut butter, but to others this brings an unexpected struggle because they are not a household staple.

On top of these non-perishable proteins we have our frozen meat pre-packs. These are often an unexpected and appreciated addition to the hamper for first-time patrons who have a mental picture of food banks as wall to wall pork and beans and Kraft Dinner.  Thanks to the tireless work of the Food Bank building relationships with local businesses  we rarely run out or have to cut back on the amount of meat we have to distribute.

The down side of our meat is that it can be  a little freezer burned at times, runs of test product, or large and frozen solid so that you have to wait a while until it is thawed out prior to use. When it is thawed you have to cook it and eat it quickly.  This can be challenging for families that want to eat something right after picking up their hamper.  We try to offer a variety of sizes and types of items but this is not always possible.

Conclusion

Our daily goal is to provide a base level of nutrition to our patrons.  The experience, thriftiness and ingenuity of our volunteers and staff will help maintain our 2009 averages into 2010, and with the grace of our donors perhaps they’ll increase. No one knows what the next few months will bring to our program, since new donors and donations show up every day, along with new patrons.

Every pound of food  we get helps us reach one step closer to our goal of providing three to five days of food.  An extra day or so added to a food group in our hampers means a lot for people who are living from one day (or meal) to the next.

Long term, the best way to meet the needs of our program patrons is to close our program.  Emergency food is not a good long-term response to hunger.  Food banks have been doing a brisk business for over twenty years now but the dividends we pay are shortages, unequal distribution and inequality.  As volunteers and charities we do our best with tremendous amounts of generosity and good will, but ultimately, as a society,  we should think about how better access to higher education, retraining, full-time employment, stable housing and better income support might fix hunger for good.   Sure, these issues are big, and if you want to help today, these concepts are a little harder to fit into the donation box at your local grocery store, but should we just accept that box as a permanent fixture by the checkout line?

Please leave a comment. We’d love to hear your side of the story.

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