IT WAS THE best of times; it was the worst of times. On a mid-December morning in 2016, Styrofoam cups of Nescafé and smiling faces comforted the dozen or so people waiting in line with me at the Mustard Seed food bank. A light snow drifted to the ground as the line crept forward toward a desk where a woman checked names before allowing us inside to collect our goods. The man in front of me was denied access to the Promised Land beyond the gate. He’d missed the sign-up date. I exchanged worried looks with the woman behind me as we watched him leave empty-handed.
It was my turn. I approached the desk. “Your name?” the woman asked with a smile.
“Uh, actually, I’m here on my mom’s behalf.”
The smile tightened into a grimace as the woman’s chin slowly moved towards one shoulder and then the other.
“We were concerned about making it across town in the snow,” I explained. “She has a mobility issue.” Confidence in my persuasive powers was leaving me.
“I’m sorry,” the woman responded. “There has been an overwhelming need for hampers this year. We have to make sure they get into the right hands.”
I understood but pressed on. “Would you accept a call from my mom?”
She looked doubtful as she shrugged her shoulders, saying, “You can ask at the office.”
Outside the office, a friendly man with a walkie-talkie promised to help. He disappeared into the crowd of recipients lolling in limbo and volunteers bustling about on invisible tasks. I stared out the window. The view was typical of Rock Bay—an industrial neighbourhood where commerce, more-illicit trades, and the Mustard Seed food bank coexist. A growing line spilled onto the road. The occasional truck gave a wide birth. In the mix of people seeking a Christmas hamper, a young mother took her small child’s hand. One man pushed his shopping cart to the side. Another swaggered inside, looking at home.
As hope waned, I fantasized about walking a few blocks to the downtown core and into a trendy cafe or high-end grocery store. I’d buy a delicious treat in a warm and elegant setting. Then I’d pick up some local organic produce for my mom. Municipal efforts to enhance our local food system, like the new bylaws supporting small-scale commercial farming, make it easier to live such a fantasy—if you can afford it.
Frozen out of my seasonal gardening job, I couldn’t afford to buy my mom locally produced groceries. In the crowd at the food bank, I could see I was not alone. Originally intended to provide emergency relief, B.C.’s food banks served 103,464 people in March of 2016 (35 percent of whom were children), according to the annual HungerCount performed by Food Banks Canada. That is three percent more people than the preceding year and a rise of 32 per cent over 2008 levels.
The rising cost of living, static wages, and low disability and income assistance rates are putting a wider assortment of people in the position of need. According to a 2012 statistic from the Provincial Health Services Authority, 12.7 percent of people in B.C. were food insecure—defined by Health Canada as “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or a sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.” The severity of that food insecurity ranges from worrying about running out of food to actually going hungry. Health Canada says single-mom families, Indigenous peoples, new immigrants, and the marginally housed or homeless are the most severely affected. A look down the line at the Mustard Seed that morning confirmed their findings.
Walkie-Talkie Man passed by again, remembered me with a wave of his finger, and sped off, now dedicated to my case. As I waited, I stuck my head into the warehouse to see what was being offered. The bags of potatoes, apples, and carrots impressed me. I’d grown up with a single mom on a disability pension, so I’d seen the bottom of a lot of food hampers. They usually contained expired stovetop stuffing, bags of marshmallows, and cans of Spam. There was little more than filler in those boxes, and certainly nothing fresh.
IN WINTERS OF DESPAIR, I’ve survived by dumpster diving for Mr. Noodles; in springs of hope, I’ve eaten at the finest farm-to-table restaurants. I criticized my peers in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria as they purchased non-organic meals and groceries while we studied the politics of food. When my student line of credit ran out before I landed my dream job, my inflated sense of wealth and sky-high food standards went with it. I learned to moderate my ideals and balance my budget. Now I grow or scavenge much of my food, occasionally splurging on a nice meal or fancy delicacy. But these are not options for everyone.
The options for people on income assistance are particularly limited. Kelly Newhook, executive director of the non-profit Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS), says income assistance rates remained at $610 per month for the past 10 years. The new NDP provincial government took a step towards their commitment “to make life more affordable” by raising rates by $100 in September of 2017, but this will do little to change the situation. Newhook says people on income assistance “do not move on, generally speaking, to employment” because they have no means to live a healthy lifestyle. “They are living in such poverty,” she explains, “that they eventually get sick and move on to disability benefits.”
While the produce on offer at the Mustard Seed was neither local nor organic, the vegetables were a welcome improvement. “My cupboards are full of Kraft Dinner and beans because that’s what the food bank had lots of last time I went,” my mom says with a laugh when I ask what she thinks.
But I constantly worry about her increasingly precarious health. An inadequate diet is linked to child development issues, chronic disease, and stresses on mental and emotional health, according to a B.C. Ministry of Health’s food security evidence review from 2013. The review says food insecurity affects individuals, the health care system, and society as a whole. In light of our economic reality, food banks are tasked with not just filling bellies, but ensuring people get the nutrition they need to thrive.
THE COORDINATOR RETURNS to where I stood under the fluorescent lights in the Mustard Seed’s reception area. “Ah, there’s that sweet lady, here to help her mum,” he says loudly. I return a wide smile, hoping to hide my blush. “Look,” he goes on, but before he says it, I surmise that his compliment was a ploy to soften the blow. “We need your mom to come in, or at least to send you back with a note.” Tilting my head to the side with a frown, I offer up my empty hands in a gesture of understanding and disappointment. “Your mom is lucky to have your help,” he adds.
This is not the first time my mom’s physical presence has come between her and a food hamper. The mobility issue—a recent add-on to her list of health challenges—makes it hard to get to various food providers. Her scooter battery will die if she goes too far, and the bus won’t take her scooter. If no one is available to help or she doesn’t want to ask, she misses out. The Mustard Seed teamed up with local eco-courier Geazone to offer a delivery service for people with disabilities. However, it’s only available to a total of 10 individuals at a time, and those spots are currently filled. Had delivery been an option that day, we would have grabbed it.
What I lost in time waiting for the predictable answer, I gained in insights about the obstacles to accessing food banks. If a long lineup in a shady neighbourhood and unreliable transportation almost deterred me, they could present real barriers for families, people with mental health issues, and anyone uncomfortable with the stigma associated with receiving charity.
I left empty-handed but determined. My mom was waiting outside her apartment building when I arrived, and together we carefully crept back across town. “You’d think they’d make an exception on a snowy day,” I grumble.
“They are really strict about the rules,” my mom says. “They have to be. People abuse the system.” I found this hard to believe—I’d witnessed such good manners. But my mom has more experience. “At least you didn’t have to wait too long,” she says with positivity. (I thought I had.)
“Sometimes I have to wait for hours at Blanshard Court,” she says, referring to her monthly visits to Living Edge, a charitable food provider where she receives a box of mostly vegetables. She raves about that box, but wishes she could go more often. “I’m going to try the Good Food Box,” she says. “Awesome,” I respond.
The Good Food Box appeals to me beyond its delivery option. The boxes contain about 50 percent local produce, but the program is not trying to be another high-end “curated” food box for locavoracious yuppies. “We are trying to deliver healthier food to people who are food insecure,” says Alex Harned, the program’s coordinator.
There are paid and gifted box programs, depending on people’s needs. The boxes can be picked up twice a month at one of 11 existing “food hubs” across the CRD or delivered for $3. Harned credits the program’s abundance to a shift in the ethos around food waste and the resulting Helping Hands and Food Rescue initiatives.
Helping Hands gleans produce from local farms that would otherwise go un-harvested or unsold. The Food Rescue Project is a combined effort of food providers across the CRD. It started last year with funding from the Victoria Foundation and the Rotary Club. The Mustard Seed acts as the umbrella organization, receiving donations from nine Thrifty Foods across southern Vancouver Island (in exchange for a charitable tax receipt) and distributing the food to partners within the Food Share Network.
“A lot of it is just past due, but it’s completely fine,” explains Harned. “It’s no longer sellable, but it’s very much edible.” The Good Food Box has cut its food bill approximately in half since the Food Rescue Project started, which means more boxes for folks like my mom.
AFTER ANOTHER WAIT in another line, we enter the warehouse. It’s set up with tables where recipients can “shop” for what they want to take home. In the old “beggars can’t be choosers” paradigm, you picked up a box pre-filled with non-perishable items that individuals and grocery stores had donated or that the food banks had procured on strained budgets. Organizations like the Mustard Seed do what they can, but the quality of food in those boxes varied. I applaud the small changes.
My mom lit up at the choices presented to her by the volunteer behind the tables. As her cart filled, I was grateful to see my efforts bear some literal fruits. A volunteer helped me get the heavy boxes out to my car, and again, we made our way across town. Back in her apartment, after I’d lugged the boxes up through the elevator, we hug.
“Good work, daughter,” my mom says with a look of pride. Once, I would have considered this conclusion—bearing a box of food from the food bank—a source of shame. I certainly would not have publicized it. Now, with the numbers of food bank users growing alongside our collective awareness of the systemic roots of poverty, I’m breaking through these myths. Witnessing first-hand the work of the Mustard Seed to overcome the stigma and address chronic food insecurity is heartening.
About a week later, as we clear the scraps of turkey and yams from the table, my family boisterously calls out for my mom’s famous pumpkin pie. She giggles as she heaps large helpings into our bowls, then sits back to watch us fill our already full bellies. The source of the food, the trips across town in the snow, and the lineups are all but forgotten in afterglow of Christmas dinner. But the food was what we gathered around and gave thanks for.
We have everything if we collaborate on food security; we have nothing if the sustenance and dignity available through food is not available to everyone in our community. ♦