2010: The people behind the numbers


It is a real challenge to put a human face on the many numbers that I can attach to all the things we do here.  Give me a minute and I can roll all sorts of stats off the top of my head about how many hampers we give out, the averages, the quarterly break downs and the five year trends.

But that doesn’t tell you the whole story, or even really scratch the surface of the everyday experiences of people working and volunteering here.  Numbers don’t tell you all you need to know about the people walking through our door, unsure if they’re going to get the food they need to feed their family, worried about who is going to see them here and dreading the long journey home balancing everything in bags and boxes that they don’t have the energy to carry.

We recently posted about Frank.  He is part of the many numbers in our many excel spreadsheets of stats and graphs. There is also this grandmother who wrote us, requesting more information on how to get help from us:

“I am a grandmother who was given custody of my newborn grandson. I lost my job. I went through all my EI. I went through almost all my savings. I had to sell my house.  I am looking for work and at same point looking for childcare. I was wondering in this situation, would I qualify for a food hamper? [I’m feeling] really scared in this point where I never saw my life’s direction going…”

Behind every statistic there is a person or a family like Frank and this grandmother. These are people that travel the same streets you do but often face significantly different struggles. Everyone is different and has their own story to tell and all of them would tell you they never thought they would have to come to us for help.

But, even though it can be difficult to imagine and remember that behind every statistic there is a real person, stats help us understand more about the work we do.  Looking at the previous year as a whole paints a big picture of what our volunteers and donors helped us accomplish. (For a little more history from 2009, look here.)

So what more can I say about last year?  It was busy, as I’ve already posted (here), and full of many amazing moments where we were stunned by the generosity and consideration that this region show’s its less fortunate neighbours. The basics of who we helped, how many times and how they supported themselves didn’t change much at all.

In total we served fewer hampers and households, or to be more exact, 1113 fewer hampers and 420 fewer households.  That’s a positive development, but it would be better if those numbers were much larger. It may seem like 1113 is a lot of hampers, but that only works out to a 3.3% decrease in the total we distributed in 2009, or an average of 92 fewer hampers each month.  What the stats tell us about last year is that the status quo continues – more or less the same numbers of people are hungry for the same reasons.

The food hampers our volunteers packed

We can help a family or individual with emergency supplies that should last somewhere between 3-5 days.  We have a guideline limit of helping someone six times a year (12 times for people over 65).  What we did last year was essentially a mirror image of 2009 and the years before.  About 92% of the households we served received between 1-6 hampers.

The 8% of households that received hampers beyond the six did so for a variety of reasons.  They had no other options to get food and had a clear need for it, they required additional supports because of severely restricted diets or any number of other special situations that fall in the gray area that we must constantly navigate.  The very last thing we want to do is turn someone away to go hungry when we have at least a few things to offer them.  In total, the “exceptions” we gave out accounted for 4% of the total hampers we distributed last year.  This was essentially the same number as 2009 (4.79% in 2009 vs. 4.66% last year).

Community caring in action

The majority of the households we gave food to got a few hampers when they hit a really hard spot in their personal finances, and didn’t return because their situation improved.  Someone lost a job, got sick for a week or two and didn’t have paid sick days or a large unexpected bill came in that forced them to make a hard choice between keeping the heat on and a roof over their heads, or keeping food in their fridge. Once the crisis was over, they were able to get by and didn’t return.

Each month we always meet people who come to us for the first time.  The conversation at intake usually starts with “I’ve never done this before, what should I do…?”  Sometimes there are a few tears, a lot of hesitation, nervousness and doubt.  In 2010 intake staff walked new people through getting a hamper 1749 times.  New people represent 18% of all the households last year.  In 2009 about 22% or 2213 households were new to us.

The families we helped

When you take all the households and individuals and compare them, the same trends we saw last year continue.  Many are single individuals who have few or no family resources to fall back to when times get tough. Of the 9539 households we served last year, 48% were single people.

In this group are a lot of adults who found they could get a job 20 or 30 years ago without a high school diploma but are now finding fewer employers are interested in even looking at their resume, let alone scheduling interviews or hiring them.

Single parent and two parent families make up the next largest groups we serve (22% and 21% of total households served respectively). These are families that struggle to find childcare, have to cope with the illness of the primary income earner and find that what employment they do get pays less money with fewer or no benefits to cover basic things like dental or vision care.

From our friends in Toronto, take the story of Nick and Linda for example:

“In February 2008 Nick was laid off. His wife Linda, was let go from her job that same summer.  By mid-2009, neither had been able to find work.  By early 2010 the couple had no savings left, having used it all to pay for rent, food and bills for the past eight months.  With no savings, maxed out credit cards and two young children, social assistance and food banks may be a part of their future for longer than they would like.” (source in .pdf on page 9)

Two adult households with no children make up the smallest number of households we help.  In total, about 8% of the families we served were just two adults.  They tend to have fewer expenses and have fewer barriers to employment so compared to the other family types we serve they are better able to cope with financial stress and relocate to areas with better prospects.

How our volunteers continue to make a difference

Volunteers are the only way we could serve over 32,000 food hampers.  Last year 152 people came to our building to sort food, pack hampers, clean, organize clothing and other donations, take out the garbage, stock our coolers, break down cardboard, restock our shelves, share a smile and help a tremendous number of people get fed.  In total they contributed over 12,500 hours to the program.

How can you measure the impact of those hours and all those people? I can share a few factoids that illustrate a tiny bit of the huge effort our volunteers put in here.  For every hour a volunteer was here packing hampers last year, they helped (on average) at least 22 people with food. Every box of fruits and vegetables they packed helped at least 45 families. Even stocking our humble milk cooler made a big difference: once you filled a shelf of it, you helped get milk to 80 families.

As one patron remarked this summer when they were doing our survey that our volunteers “take the time with each individual person and try to meet our needs the best they can […] everybody treats you well!”  Their contributions make a world of difference to our work and the organization.

Many of our volunteers are also people who have received help from us in the past.  Like our patrons they all have a story to tell, something we have been trying to do on our blog.  Keep an eye out for more volunteer profiles in the coming months.

What kind of year will 2011 be like?

What does all of this mean for the coming year?  What can we expect?  If you asked me a few months ago in December I would say that 2011 would probably be just as busy as 2010 since the last three months of 2010 were very busy.

January this year we distributed 2974 hampers.  This is 99 less than we did in 2009.  February is shaping up to be a little slower than last year as well, but still, not by a huge amount.  In the spring and summer we’ll have a better sense of how the rest of the year will go.  I’m optimistic that we’ll start to see our numbers slip even lower from the highs of 2009, our busiest year so far.

But, slower is a relative term.  It is important to point out that in the last 8 years we have not given out fewer than 25,000 hampers in any given year.  The last time we distributed less than 20,000 was 1990.  So for 2011, we are expecting to help out with around 30,000 hampers.

Get involved and make a difference

We are always looking for new volunteers and if you have some time we could use your help.

I’ve spent a lot of time in this post highlighting the contributions of our volunteers but I would be negligent if I didn’t also talk about the equally important role of our many donors, large and small!

Working closely with the Food Bank of Waterloo Region (thought we were The Food Bank? Click here to see the difference) and many private donors who give directly to us we share an incredible amount of food with people.

We are always in need of non-perishable food donations, and are also able to receive large perishable donations as well. Please contact us by email or phone (519-742-0662) if you have something to share with us and your community.


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One Response to “2010: The people behind the numbers”

  1. Tweets that mention 2010: The people behind the numbers « Hofemergencyfoodassistance's Blog -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Juanita Metzger, House of Friendship. House of Friendship said: There is a person behind every statistic + a story 4 every hamper. Read about 2010 @ the @HOFKW Food Hamper Program http://bit.ly/f2v00l […]

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