The story of food banks in Waterloo Region

Recession is something we’re all familiar with.  When things get tough we tighten our belts.  We follow the unemployment numbers printed in the news and we all know a few people who have lost their job.

Food banks are a response to recession.  In the 1980’s volunteers and staff at organizations and groups that were serving the community started getting more requests for assistance with food from a growing number of individuals and families.   The House of Friendship (which writes this blog) is no stranger to this.  Food is something we have always tried to help people with since we opened our doors in 1939. Small programs have always existed to support the low income people in our communities.

But the recession that started in the 1980’s and then echoed again in the 1990’s created a need far beyond what the House of Friendship and organizations across the entire country had seen before.  So new organizations were formed and the people kept lining up outside their doors as they still line up today with no sign of stopping.

So what were these new organizations? What is a food bank?  If you woke up today with empty cupboards, an empty bank account and a growling stomach what will you do?

Well, back in 1984 The Food Bank of Waterloo Region (FBWR) opened their doors.  Waterloo Region wasn’t alone – most regions at the time were in the process of establishing new food banks and starting to talk to people about hunger and what they could do about it.  FBWR is a separate organization that serves as a central window for donors to visit and central hub to supply member agencies.  Its job is to go out to businesses and the food industry and harvest the surplus and the waste, and to appeal to the community and organize food drives in places like schools, workplaces and churches.  In turn they support a range of separate member agencies, places like the House of Friendship Emergency Food Hamper program.  These member agencies are the front line groups that actually distribute the food to people in need.

We are mostly volunteer run places.  The Emergency Food Hamper Program has some staff, but the majority of the work is done by almost 300 different volunteers each year. We are the largest program by far, with the other groups operating in churches, the spare rooms of community centers and the like.  No matter where you are, space is at a premium as volunteers and donations flow in and go out to the people in need.  From the Food Bank alone last year 4 million pounds of food moved through the system via 100 member agency programs.

The first half of 2010 alone saw the distribution of almost 34,000 boxes of emergency food from Food Bank member agencies.  And that is just this community alone. Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, St. Johns and all the smaller communities both rural and urban in between are just as busy too, if not more so.

The boxes of food we aim to distribute are mostly non-perishable goods and are intended to last 3-5 days.  Some of the programs are able to receive, store and distribute non-perishable goods like fresh fruits and vegetables, and most days, we are able to distribute staples like milk and meat.  The focus is to hit all the food groups and provide a balanced range of items that people can make good use of.  Some programs are larger and can accommodate more people, some are smaller and only open one or two days a week.  All of them work together to help all the people who lack food in the region and to share what resources and help they can.

In addition to the organizations giving out food hampers, there are meal programs that serve people in need of a hot meal.  Various churches, or organizations like St. John’s, which is run by the Working Centre, take a lot of volunteers and a few staff, to transform whatever shows up on their doorstep into nutritious meals – up to 300 a day when they’re really busy.

So today, if you wake up hungry not sure of where your next meal will come from you can turn to one of a list of programs. Most likely there is one in your neighbourhood, it is a place where a volunteer will be able to help you with a meal or a box of food that will provide you with some short term relief. It’s not easy, but it’s a situation thousands of the people in this region face on a weekly basis.

What can you do about it?  Well, if you want to learn more, then you can volunteer, donate, or stay informed by reading this blog.  Click here to learn how you can help out or here to learn more about House of Friendship.

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