Late afternoon on a quiet Thursday, the last few lingering customers inside the Port Hardy Harvest Food Bank exit through the doorway, and as the doors are locked behind them, four people gather among the couch and furniture that fill the entrance.
The four people present are here to discuss an issue of critical importance on the North Island: food insecurity. Household food insecurity is defined by Health Canada as “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate diet quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so.” It is commonly related to a household’s financial means for obtaining food.
Andy Cornell, who runs Harvest, Deppyka Lightheart, thrift store manager, Cheryl Elliott, teacher’s aide and Treasurer and Secretary of the food bank, and Randy Elliott, Pastor at Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw Seventh-day Adventist Church, are all strongly involved in the functioning of the food bank and thrift store that make up Harvest.
Those involved in the running of Harvest see it as a critically-important resource for many dealing with food insecurity, but at the moment say that they strongly require volunteers and community engagement for it to best accomplish the objective of feeding people.
How big of a problem is food insecurity in this area? “I think its a huge issue,” says Cornell. He arrived in Port Hardy a few years and began volunteering at the Salvation Army soup kitchen. He was struck, given the population of Port Hardy, by how many people were coming to the soup kitchen on a daily basis.
Cornell has been working 40-hour volunteer work weeks for the past six months and has seen need grow.
“Every week we have to go into the archives and pull out cards for people that haven’t been here for years, but they’re coming back,” he explains. Unemployment may be a factor, but so is underemployment, as many food bank users tell Cornell that they are waiting for employment insurance to kick in or for a call from a casual basis job. “There is a definitely a state of crisis as far as I am concerned.” Others in the group echo their agreement.
Harvest is a branch of Food Banks Canada and is a non-profit society serving the entire Regional District of Mount Waddington from their Port Hardy location. They are not controlled or intended for any one religious group or demographic, something that the members gathered mention there may be some confusion about. The thrift store in the front is set up to generate income to buy food for the food bank.
The food bank also receives donations from a variety of sources, including those distributed by Food Banks Canada from large corporate companies, as well as consistent and very valued food donations from IGA and Super Valu in Port McNeill.
Each week Cornell buys produce and they also have a vegetable garden. The food bank operates a food hamper program, a bread bin program, supports school meal programs, and partners with other social service agencies and organizations.
Harvest applies each year for a grant from the government, but that grant is never guaranteed. “It’s a bit tenuous running your whole business on the reliance of someone giving you something,” says Cornell. Although he is grateful for donations, he would like in the future to introduce some revenue-generating services in the building like printing and copying services.
The major concern the members gathered bring up is the crucial need for volunteers, citing it as a “persistent issue.”
They do have a few great volunteers at the moment, but the amount of work involved in running and operating is still overwhelming. They need people who can commit to a certain amount of hours each week on a consistent basis, and would love for more community members to get involved. Some things that Lightheart and Cornell would love to focus more attention on are the vegetable garden and providing more nutritional education, but without more volunteers they are spread too thin to devote the time they would like. Additionally, community members could volunteer to fill board of directors positions.
On a Friday at noon, Cornell and other volunteers are in the food bank working below shelves of boxed Dole bananas and cereal, busily organizing food for hamper distribution. As they put together hampers containing food like Special K crackers, white onions and russet potatoes, a line of people outside the building steadily grows, snaking out towards
Market Street as they wait for the distribution to begin. A woman and a man standing together, first and second in line, want to make sure that they won’t be captured as photos of the exterior of the food bank are snapped, the man halfheartedly joking that he wouldn’t want his mother to see him like this.
This potential sense of embarrassment or shame is something that Cornell says he tries to minimize through the way he manages Harvest. “I want this place to be as low barrier as it can possibly be and still function,” he says. One way he accomplishes this is by not performing means testing on those who come for hampers. “I want people to retain all the dignity they can, and making them go through a big bureaucratic process of means testing is not a helpful thing when you are trying to let people hold onto their dignity.”
This is the first article in a series about food insecurity issues on the North Island. If you have any ideas of other areas to explore or would just like to discuss the issue, please contact Hannah Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-949-6225.