Expect the unexpected


photo via flickr

Each day, week, month and year we are here at the Emergency Food Hamper Program something new and different happens.  It could be an unexpected donation, a new and interesting volunteer, or a new story and difficult decision to make.

So far 2012 has proven to be a challenging year for us.  Our weekly plan for how we will distribute food have required more forethought, planning and second guessing than usual.  Why is that?  There are a few reasons.

First off, we have been extraordinarily busy.  January was the busiest month in our entire history.  In the last few years we have been breaking records with alarming frequency.  What made January so different than other months in our past?  There is never a single reason.  People take many different paths to show up at our door.  There are common themes for sure; the largest one being poor employment prospects and low benefits and wages.  January is often a difficult month for people on social assistance (OW and ODSP) because their January benefit cheque is issued before Christmas.  The money arrives and people have to wait until the end of January before their next cheque is issued.  Unexpected expenses, budgeting issues from Christmas, utility bills higher than usual because of the cold weather and the simple fact that you don’t start with much to begin with (a single person on OW gets less than $600 a month to live on) translates into a lot of empty cupboards and long line ups at our door.

In January we shared food with an average 177 families and individuals each day.  The first five days we were open saw 1068 households walk into our lobby looking for assistance.  Our volunteers rose to the challenge and received, sorted and shared an incredible volume of food.  They packed hampers, listened to stories at the hamper window, provided encouragement and shared a little bit of hope that things would get better.  And still people kept coming.

As you may have already read, February was Potato Blitz time, and while we didn’t break the record that month, we were only 25 hampers short of the busiest February on record.  It was in February that things started to get a little more challenging behind the scenes here.  The volume of food we were receiving via our many donors and program partners started to slip.  It started to get very difficult to share a steady supply of fresh produce, something that we pride ourselves on being able to give out, and dairy products, like milk and yogurt.  Working closely with the Food Bank of Waterloo Region staff we were able to get our hands on frozen vegetables and extra items (waffles anyone?) to try and fill our hampers with some food value but it was challenging.  There were lots of extra trips to make pickups and agonizing over what quotas to put on everything.

March has probably been the worst month so far.  Our supply of fresh fruit and vegetables has been cut back in a major way.  Some weeks we have received essentially no fresh fruit and no fresh vegetables.  We had to exclusively use frozen vegetables many times, and some days the only fruit we had to give out was in cans – something that we have had to do only a few times in the past. Thankfully the Food Bank had options for us and their flexible staff helped us find viable alternatives to what we typically give out.

Several times however, we were saved by unexpected and very generous donations out of the blue.  Our long time friends at Pfennings Organics called us early in the morning several times with offers of fresh cauliflower and crates of green beans.  We rushed over there immediately so that we could bag the beans and have the cauliflower ready for opening our doors at 11am.

This week has been no different for the most part. On Monday we got our usual shipment from Loblaws.  It had a large amount of yogurt which was a huge benefit, but very little fruit and a scant amount of vegetables.  What little we had quickly disappeared into the fridges of the 443 families who stepped through our front door on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Yesterday was Thursday, the day that we receive our second weekly shipment of perishable and non-perishable food from our friends at the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.  We were assuming that there was more yogurt coming our way since we got some on Monday, but were very surprised to find about three skids of it on the back of the truck with news that there were nine more waiting to be picked up at the donor.  When handling things like yogurt, we have to be very aware of the best by date.  Usually we will have a short period of time before the item hits its best by date, and we may receive items with a better date than what we currently have in stock.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if we had a large cooler, but we’re often very short on space, and items we bury in the back because it has a long time before it’s best by date on Monday, may need to come out on Thursday because we get something with an even better date.

So yesterday I got to spend some quality time in the cooler, shifting product around to make space for the yogurt we had, and were about to receive again as the Food Bank volunteer returned to Loblaws to pick up some of the remaining yogurt.  In between organizing the cooler, restocking, helping volunteers with questions and setting them up with jobs to do in the warehouse, we also received yet another unexpected gift from a new donor in Milton.

On Wednesday an employee of Fresh Start Foods telephoned Sandra at the Men’s Hostel inquiring if we took donations of fresh produce.  She quickly gave him my number and he gave me a call.  When their delivery truck rolled up to our warehouse yesterday afternoon we were very pleased to find two skids of beautiful cauliflower.  They heard about us from another donor to our program the Ontario Dairy Goat Cooperative who share goats milk with us.  Thanks to Fresh Start Foods, the people walking out of doors today were able to take home fresh cauliflower – a healthy addition to any ones diet!  Without them, many of the individuals and families may have gotten a few cans or frozen items at the most.  Because the cauliflower is in such great condition, we will also be able to hold onto it for a while and the families coming to us next week will be able to enjoy it.

So what is the moral of this story?  Relationships are key.  Working with our hundreds of volunteers, program partners and donors new and old, we are able to help with some of the burden of being poor, and with one phone call, you can make a real difference in not only one persons life, but an entire community!

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