Helping the hungry of Tumbler Ridge

Trent Ernst, Editor


It’s been a year and a half since Walter Energy idled the Wolverine Mine and ten months since Anglo American did the same for its Peace River pits.

According to Shirley Durand, who coordinates the food bank here in Tumbler Ridge, demand has been a lot higher in the last year. But it’s not just unemployed miners who are driving demand. Social services are sending people to Tumbler Ridge from Dawson Creek and Fort St. John to take advantage of the cheaper rent, but, says Durand, the cost of driving to and from work for people lucky enough to be employed is negating the benefit of cheaper rent.

“When the mines first closed there were quite a few miners who needed food, but a lot of them have moved away,” says Durand. “We have a lot of our regular people who come because they just don’t have the finances to pay for everything.”

But, despite many people moving away, demand is still going up. “Last year, for the whole year, we did 107 hampers, and 30 Christmas hampers,” says Durand. “This year, we’ve done 191 hampers, and we still have to do up our Christmas hampers.”

On November 28, the annual District Food Drive will be happening, with firefighters and community members joining mayor and council as they drive around town collecting food.

If people want to buy groceries specifically for the food bank, Durand says they very rarely get peanut butter, jam, mustard, mayonnaise or ketchup. They also don’t get much in the way of baking goods like flour or sugar. “That is a need, because all those things go into the hampers.”

On the other hand, people who are looking to donate food they tried but didn’t like should consider just turfing it. “We cannot take anything that is open,” says Durand, “and we cannot take anything that’s past its due date, which we get a lot of. When we have the food drive, there’s two tables that are usually full that are past their due date.”

The number of people using food banks across Canada are at a near-record level, increasing for the second straight year, according to Food Banks Canada.

The HungerCount 2015 report shows that 852,137 people – 305,366 of them children – accessed a food bank in March this year.

Food bank use is 1.3 percent higher than in 2014, and a troubling 26 percent higher than in 2008, when the economic downturn started. This means that 175,000 more people each month are seeking assistance, compared to 2008.

“In the short-term, people turn to food banks for diverse reasons – layoffs, a sudden illness, a rent increase that eats into a family’s food budget,” said Katharine Schmidt, Executive Director of Food Banks Canada, which coordinated the national study involving more than 4,000 food programs. “The underlying issue that has kept food bank use so high for so long is the fact that millions of Canadians are trying to make ends meet with incomes that fall far below what is needed to afford the basic cost of living.”

The national increase was strongly influenced by the province of Alberta, where food bank use rose by a shocking 23 percent in the past year.

Food banks are typically associated with the inner city, but what’s happening in Tumbler Ridge mirrors what is happening across the country, with rural and remote communities facing greater challenges. “Hunger is a reality in Canada, and often an even greater struggle for those living in rural communities, because of the extra challenges food banks have assisting those in need,” says Schmidt.

Thirty-five percent of food banks are located in rural and remote communities. Their location means they face unique challenges because these communities are sparsely populated, widely scattered, and geographically isolated. The most significant challenge is that the cost of transporting food is much higher than in dense urban centres.

Across the country, nearly 150,000 Canadians in rural communities rely on food banks. Of course, not everyone who goes to a food bank needs to use a food bank. According to Durand, that’s an issue here, too.

We have some people who ‘use’ the food bank,” says Durand. “People who come here and tell us they’re in need, but they aren’t. Back when we started, the need was genuine. Over the years, you find people who decide, since there is a food bank here, they use it, so they can spend their money on other things. We’ve had one guy call us, and I took his ID, and I gave him a one person hamper, and I found out a few days later that he had just been up here visiting.”

In an effort to prevent people from scamming the food bank, says Durand, they do ask for ID, proof of address and proof of income. “We don’t turn anyone down; they always get something, but if they come a second time, we need to have this information.”

Food banks operating beyond the urban core generally have fewer sources for food donations, which means they must often buy essentials like bread or milk to fill in gaps in their food hampers. Coupled with a smaller donor base for financial contributions, this can easily create hardship for these organizations.

Despite the donations of food, says Durand, they still have to buy 98 percent of the food they distribute. The food bank received a couple major donations in the last month—$10,000 from the Community Forest and $3000 from the Thrift Store—the Food Bank still needs donations Durand says people need to look at their own grocery budgets, often close to $1000/month for a family of four. $13,000 is enough to feed maybe 15 or 20 families for a month.

“We have had people—women and men—cry when they received their hamper because they were so thankful,” says Durand. “We not only give people food, we give people incentive to help themselves. Not all of them, but some of them. For some, it’s too embarrassing to come. I hear there are kids going to school with no lunches because they don’t have food, but they’ve never approached the food bank. I think a lot of it is pride.”

The Tumbler Ridge Food bank has been operating since 2008, and is run out of a space in the New Life Assembly Church on Murray Drive. If you are in need of a hamper, or wish to donate, please call Shirley at 250-242-7404.