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PAT CULLEN: Please give generously to your food bank

Food banks need all the help they can get these days. — Compass file photo
Food banks need all the help they can get these days. — Compass file photo

Food bank usage is on the rise in this area because people don’t have enough money to buy groceries after the bills are paid, according to representatives of some food banks.

Coordinators say the increases are among seniors, young single mothers and the working poor.
The Salvation Army food bank in Carbonear feeds 870 people; the St.Vincent de Paul Immaculate Conception food bank in Harbour Grace had around 1,258 users last year, roughly 100 of whom were children.

Kerri Abbott, chairperson of the St.Vincent de Paul food bank, said in the Sept. 5 edition of the Compass that she and her volunteers serve hundreds monthly, and she is seeing more minimum-wage earners.

The low-income earner is there because wages can’t keep pace with the cost of living. They may only be given few hours of work by employers, and have little or no drug or dental insurance.

According to Salvation Army volunteers, seniors make up 20 per cent of their users. The single senior getting one old-age pension cheque can be particularly vulnerable. They can’t pay rent or keep up their houses, pay bills, sometimes pay the full cost of medication, and eat too.

Some endure a hellish existence, especially if they must pay for drugs not covered by the Newfoundland and Labrador Prescription Drug Program – a plan where government pays for prescription drugs of the indigent, or if they take a number of over-the-counter medications that are not subsidized.
Even the poorest senior normally pays $6 on each prescription, so for those taking multiple-prescription medications, some of which may be bought without government assistance, food can become their lowest priority.

Others have an equally difficult time. Both Winnifred Pilgrim, who handles statistics for the Army food bank, and Grant Koehler, president of Harbour Grace St. Vincent de Paul, say the biggest group they see are young, single mothers. Pilgrim puts them at 30 per cent of the total.
Koehler says some of these young women are fleeing undesirable home lives that may include sexual abuse. They run to the arms of a “compassionate” lover, but one whose compassion is short-lived when she and their children become an inconvenience. They are the women who must feed themselves and two children on $73 a week.

Poverty can be self-perpetuating and food-bank usage sometimes generational. Koehler promotes education as a way to end the cycle and wants to see scholarships funded by business and community organizations, specifically for food-bank clients and their children.
Salvation Army volunteers feel improvements to mental health services and social housing, as well as a more empathetic prescription drug plan, would relieve the burden on a lot of people.

Food banks get their donations from individuals and businesses. While the Salvation Army says it has no problem finding donors – something it attributes to the success of its Christmas Kettle campaign and its more than 40 years of service in this area – the St. Vincent de Paul Society is not so lucky.

While Koehler and his volunteers are not yet struggling, he foresees problems.
“If the money keeps going down at the rate it’s going down and donations keep coming in at the rate they are, we will likely have nothing in the bank in three to four years time,” he said.

He also spoke of government giving $1,000 to each food bank in the province to buy fresh produce so users will be healthy.
He may just get his wish. Ken McDonald, MP for Avalon, has no problem with federal money supporting food banks and is willing to take a well-constructed proposal to Jean-Yves Duclos, minister of families, children and social development. McDonald said such a measure would need to be instituted across the country and ideally, developed in conjunction with the provinces.
Contacted in Ottawa, he refused to discuss dollars, citing the diversities, such as client-loads, within food banks.

At the local level, Carbonear Mayor Frank Butt said if a struggling food bank solicited the town for money, he would take the request to the appropriate committee of council, providing it came from someone in authority at the food bank experiencing hardship.
He would also send off a solicitation email to his representative in the provincial legislature, as well as his MP — again, if asked by a food bank authority.

He advocated social media as a good way for struggling food banks to make public requests, especially at Thanksgiving or Christmas – presumably because at these times others may have stocked larders and may be in a more giving mood.

Don Coombs, mayor of Harbour Grace, said he personally favors putting town money into the food bank in Harbour Grace and is “prepared to ask the town to support this in a financial manner depending (on) what’s left in the budget.”
He mentioned the probability of making an annual donation and is willing to lobby provincial and federal representatives, if asked.

Lisa Dempster, provincial minister of children, seniors and social development, under whose department the province’s poverty-reduction strategy falls, outlined in an email the measures government has taken to improve conditions for low-income residents, including the $105,000-a-year grant her department gives to the non-profit organization Food First NL to help ensure access to healthy eating.

In this column, I have not given my opinion. It’s of small consequence to the issue I have just addressed. But I will give some advice from the Salvation Army. It wants more coordination among food banks in the area, such as knowing the hours others are open when they are closed. And the Army is also willing to extend a hand to any food bank that will reach out to it.

Grant Koehler has received money from the Walmart Foundation through a grants program established with Food Banks Canada to make upgrades to his facility. He plans to apply for more. Sounds like some great ideas!

Pat Cullen is a journalist who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or cullen.pat1@gmail.com.

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