The Gift of Food

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Worth repeating:  In keeping with Day 2 of 12DaysForGood, here is our presentation to Regional Council regarding the issue of Discretionary Benefits.

“The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind. Food is the moral right of all who are born into this world.” — Norman Borlaug

Good Evening Chair Galloway & Regional Councillors. We have brought you a food hamper as we thought you might be hungry at this point in the meeting.

My name is John Neufeld and I serve as the Executive Director of House of Friendship. I am joined by my colleagues and fellow community leaders: Wendi Campbell, from The Food Bank of Waterloo Region; Pat Singleton, Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank; Major Rick Sheasby from Salvation Army; Don Harloff from Woolwich Community Services; and, Trisha Robinson from Wilmot Family Resource Centre. This is a working group of the Waterloo Region Shares Advisory Group representing the Food Assistance Network in our community. We have also brought some friends with us who are interested in helping you make the best decision.

This food hamper before you is truly discretionary for you and me. However, this hamper was not discretionary for the 260 individuals that walked through our programs today. It was not discretionary for Julia who brought in her daughter to get a food hamper. When the staff innocently asked, “No School Today?” She responded that she didn’t have a lunch to send with her daughter to school, so she kept her at home instead. Faced with the option of having her daughter go to school hungry where her daughter could face social isolation from her peers or not send her at all, Julia had to make a choice.

This food hamper was not discretionary to Jamie who requested extra potatoes. He is undergoing radiation for a cancerous cyst that developed around his lips. He wore a mask to protect that area of his face. He wasn’t eating much more than mashed potatoes, because of difficulty of chewing and keeping anything down. Regular work isn’t an option with his treatment schedule and providing care for his elderly mother, who has Alzheimer’s.

This food hamper wasn’t discretionary to Maria, who on her first day in Canada came through the doors of a Food Hamper Program. Arriving from Guatemala, Maria and her husband received some food and some extra supplies when we learned through her interpreter that she was pregnant.

Each one of us is one job loss, relationship breakdown, mental health crises, death in a family, or health crises away from needing a food hamper.

So how did we get here? How did we in Waterloo Region build an innovative and progressive food distribution system that daily serves individuals and families like Julia, Jamie, and Maria?

How did we create the provinces most innovative food system that last year fed over 36,000 people in our community (6.6% of the population) with over 13,000 being children. That’s filling the newly expanded Aud more than five times.

How did we build a system that provided over 450,000 community meals to individuals through residential and community programs like St. John’s Kitchen and Ray of Hope. How did we build a system that provides the bulk of food for various social services in our community like Out of The Cold, Anselma House, Langs, Trinity Community Table, Nutrition for Learning, Cambridge Neighbourhood Associations, ROOF, and SHOW?

We didn’t do it overnight. It’s been thirty years of hard work, creativity, collaboration, and innovation. Thirty years ago when we were also faced with an economic crisis, and agencies such as Salvation Army, House of Friendship, Anselma House were faced with increased demands, a small group of visionaries came together and dreamed of a better way to provide food than each individual organization trying to do it.

This led to the establishment of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region in 1984 and Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank in 1985. This allowed agencies to focus on their primary work while the food banks focused on sourcing and distributing food. Through visionaries at the Region, some funding was secured, which then allowed the system to grow and stabilize. You helped us build a system that today distributes approximately four million pounds of food annually.

It is your investment that has allowed us to provide a relatively similar amount of food from 2002 – 2008. Then came 2009. Our demand dramatically increased, by 18%, as a result of the economic downturn. As a result of the Region’s investment in Food Hampers we were able to respond and meet the increased needs that have unfortunately continued over the past two years, and are still present today.

So what has your investment allowed us to do? We’ve been able to create a $12M food system that meets the needs of our community and ensure that no one goes hungry in our Region. For every $1 the Region has invested it has received $15.82 in return with this program.

Today we stand at the crossroads and the question is not what will we do now that Discretionary Benefits have been reduced by the Province. The more important question is what kind of community do we want to live in? For 30 years this community has worked hard to make sure that the most vulnerable are cared for and are part of an inclusive and thriving community. A community built on innovation and collaboration and respect for each other.
We want a community where food is not a discretionary benefit.

Tonight we have a simple request.

We are requesting Food Hampers funding be removed from Discretionary Benefits? WHY? Not just because of philosophical reasons, but because of efficiency or should I say inefficiency. Did you know that if all of you would come through a Food Hamper Program we would take down your information, we would check whether you were on ODSP or OW, then at the end of the month all the Hamper programs would send in their spreadsheets to the Region, and then staff would spend the bulk of their time at the Region comparing our spreadsheets to your spreadsheets to ensure the provincial funding comes through. So we might bill for 19,000 individuals, but get reimbursed for 12,000. It’s simply not an effective or efficient system. Changing this would save the Region and our programs some operating costs. Furthermore, why is funding only connected to those on OW/ODSP? When someone who is ‘working poor’ comes through our door should they not receive a hamper as well? We believe so and will assist anyone struggling with food security.

This is an idea that we have shared with David Dirks and he is in support of considering this. David and his team have done a remarkable job of working through this process and should be commended for the work they have put in on this over the last 6 months.

At this point staff recommendation stands at finding an additional $1.15M to subsidize the projected provincial amount of $2.5M based on current caseloads. This unfortunately translates to Food Hampers being cut by more than 50%, funded only at $380,000. We wish we could all stand here and tell you magically that we’ll continue operating this $12M system for $380,000, but it simply isn’t possible.

We have worked closely together as agencies funded by the Region. We are committed to continue strive towards a vision of a stronger system in our community. Tonight we would like to propose three funding scenarios:

FH - Region Council 2012 (2)

$750,000 – HEALTHY: this level of funding would ensure the present level of food hampers and respond to the expected increased demands in 2013 due to the other cutbacks. This funding would allow us to continue with our vision of an even stronger, and efficient food network

$700,000 – GETTING BY: we would continue addressing needs, but would have to remove what we can offer in our food hampers e.g. diapers, formula, etc.

$650K – SURVIVAL: this would put us at survival mode with staffing reductions, reduced hours of operation, and reduction in client access to services.

Obviously, the first scenario is our preference as it represents the best possible health outcomes for our community. The second scenario is one that’s a scenario where, make no mistake, we are starting to cut services and that will have an impact on health for individuals, families, and communities. And at $650,000, we are in survival mode, where we are doing bare minimum and helping people only sustain themselves, and are jeopardizing the health of the community.

We have difficult choices ahead. However given our legacy of innovation, consultation, and collaboration in this region, we are confident that we can overcome these challenges by continuing to improve the model, some of which I’ve touched on this evening. This takes time. There are many uncertainties such us the unknown impact of the cutting of the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), January 1st.

Allow us this year to maintain the health of people in this region as we move forward. Let 2013 be the year of innovation, not cuts, and commit to moving forward to a stronger model while maintaining the health of our community.

In closing I want to paraphrase a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.

“We have the audacity to believe that people in Waterloo Region can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

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