How to keep food bank shelves stocked

Food banks are the last line of defence against malnutrition in our society, but they periodically face a shortage as donations from food drives run low and no new supplies come in. When non-perishables are scarce, food banks must give less to each individual that uses their service to avoid running out of food completely. If food banks received a dependable, steady supply of food it would improve nutrition to low-income families.

Shawn Hayward looks at ways people could help stock the shelves permanently.

Illustration by Ricky King

Eg Walters says he’s never seen it drop this low in the 17 years he’s been general manager of the Community Food Sharing Association. The stock of non-perishable food in the association’s warehouse was so small they had to make a public appeal for more donations.

But it’s nothing new to the network of food banks in St. John’s.

Every summer, demand for help increases because school breakfast and lunch programs end in June. Meanwhile, donations decrease in summer. After major food drives during Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, donations hit a lull between spring and fall.

Newfoundlanders are among the most charitable people in the country. In 2006, 93 per cent of Newfoundlanders gave to charity—seven percentage points higher than the national average, tying us with P.E.I. as the most charitable province.
But Walters says the slow economy has made this hard time of year for that much worse.

“We’ve got a lot of people who just can’t afford to give like they gave before,” he says. “Every summer it generally drops down, but we haven’t seen a drop like this summer.”

The public appeal has temporarily relieved the shortage, according to Walters, with food coming in from large organizations and individual donations, but he says if people don’t continue to donate throughout the summer his organization will have to once again reduce the amount of food they distribute.

Get organized
When asked how food banks could secure a steady flow of donations, Walters pointed to the example of P.F. Collins, a customs brokerage company based in St. John’s. Eight months ago they began a food drive where each month staff are asked to bring in an item the food bank is short on at that time, such as beans, peanut butter, and rice.

Betty Gill, a client services representative and coordinator of the P.F. Collins food drive, says suggesting the item to donate encourages people to participate.

“The response was overwhelming because no one was scratching their head wondering what to bring that month,” she says.
Walters says if more companies held monthly food drives, the Food Sharing Association wouldn’t face such severe shortages during the summer.

“They have a good social conscience and they do something you can depend on every month,” he says.

Get your hands dirty
It’s ironic to think that summer, the most agriculturally fertile time of the year, is when food banks are most hard-pressed to meet the need. Students and teachers from St. Bonaventure’s College are working to change that with a community garden program. They have cultivated a 10 by 12 foot plot for growing green vegetables, and a 20 by 30 foot plot for growing carrots and potatoes, with all the produce going to Emmaus House, a church-run food bank in St. John’s.

“You can see on a weekly level how many more people are at the food bank,” says David Martino, one of the teachers involved in the project. “It was almost intuitive that what we were growing would immediately go back into the community.”

Martino says community gardens not only increase the amount of food available but they provide fresher, more organically grown food, free of pesticides and other chemicals.

While small plots of land can’t fill up food banks alone, Martino says a large network of organic farms across the province would make fresh, healthy food more available to the public, a network that could be created if the province made money available to people who wants to start farming and made more land available for agriculture.

“If government made resources more readily available, private individuals would come to the fore and make these things happen,” he says.

A little perspective
In 2008, 3.9 per cent of Canadians who used food banks were from Newfoundland and Labrador, while this province made up only 1.5 per cent of the national population. Children accounted for 38.4 per cent of people using food banks, and children need to be especially well fed, as malnutrition at a young age can cause long-term learning disabilities.

In 2008 the province invested $9.6 million into its Poverty Reduction Strategy, being only the second province to create such a plan. Of the total, $1.2 million was spent on incentives for people to leave social assistance and go to work.

While millions are being spent to reduce poverty, Walters says the Food Sharing Association, which distributes $16 million dollars a year in food, only gets about $6,500 a year from the province.

“We’ve applied for increased funding,” says Walters. “It seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The government thinks if they support food banks it’s admitting their social policies don’t work, when we all know their social policies aren’t working. They just don’t want to admit it.”

Jocelyn Greene is executive director of Stella Burry Community Services, which helps people find jobs and become self-sufficient. While Greene says providing well-paying employment is the best way to end poverty, she adds food banks are essential services when those jobs can’t be found.

“Food banks are certainly a measure of last resort that serves an important function,” she says. “Do I think it’s the solution to the problem? No. But I think they do their best to provide services in a very dignified manner.”

With little government assistance and sporadic donations from the general public, food bank volunteers must make difficult choices about how much food they can afford to give, but it’s the people depending on food banks who truly suffer from the summer shortage.

“We need sustained donations over the full 12 months so we can adequately provide food banks with product to make supper for people who need something to put on their tables tonight,” says Walters.