Photo by Don Fennell
The warmth of the holiday season is unmistakable the moment one steps into the Richmond Food Bank.
Like the elves at Santa’s workshop, countless volunteers are diligently engaged in various tasks in a concerted effort to ensure their neighbours will have a Merry Christmas.
“Our volunteers are our lifeline. Without them, we wouldn’t survive a single day,” says Hajira Hussain, the food bank’s executive director.
On a rather typical Wednesday morning, there are at least 20 people engaged in conversation awaiting the food bank's opening. Some have been here for at least a half hour or more, although they'll all leave with what they need.
"I think it's a good idea they come and socialize," says Hussain. "Unfortunately, coming to the food bank is still attached to a lot of stigma and it's difficult to swallow your pride. It's a big step to say 'I need help.' These people are struggling and it's very hard for somebody to dress up and come down. But there is a need."
And the need is year-round.
"It is greater this time of year because people want to join in on the festivities of the season," says Hussain. "Despite any hardship that a family might be facing, this is a time that they want to make extra special and memorable for their loved ones. About 29 per cent of the people that we serve are children, so it becomes that much more important."
Fortunately, she adds, many of the food bank's donors schedule their annual giving around this time.
There is no typical user of the food bank. And that makes addressing social issues that much more challenging.
"Anybody who lives in Richmond might be in need," says Hussain. "About 70 per cent of the people we serve as single or small households, and many are seniors living on fixed incomes, or are struggling with disabilities or illness and are unable to have a job or are retired. Many are new families to Canada. Every year, we have about 500 new registrations."
Each week, Richmond Food Bank provides nutritious food and household staples to an average of 2,200 residents through its four grocery distribution centres located throughout the community as well as community partners working to alleviate poverty. With the Richmond School District, the food bank also recognizes the need to offer and support meal programs to kids and teens, and even delivers healthy grocery parcels to people with illnesses or disabilities.
Besides welcoming donations of non-perishable food items, especially those containing high protein like peanut butter, a grant last year enabled the food bank to install walk-in coolers, making it possible to now also provide clients with perishable foods such as fresh produce. Through the Richmond Food Bank Garden Program, volunteers have also started to grow fruits and vegetables in community garden plots.
Businesses such as Shoppers Drug Mart, PriceSmart Foods and General Mills Canada are strong supporters of the food bank, and frequently donate perishable food items including dairy products and ready-to-eat meals that can now be distributed to those in need.
“It’s a sad reality that 31 milliontons of food is wasted every year in Canada and we still have people in need,” says Hussain. “And now that we have the capacity to accept perishables, we want to make sure the retail market is not dumping any food and instead thinking of us and of their neighbour first.”
Of course, financial contributions are always welcome too and help tide the food bank over—including during the summer months when donations are typically at their lowest. For every dollar donated, the food bank is able to purchase $6 worth of food.
Hussain is pleased to see the number of community initiatives that support the food bank continue to grow. She says school programs such as food drives are particularly inspiring.
“It’s nice to see (schools) are investing in creating responsible citizens,” she says, noting that also helps increase awareness.
While the food bank’s central mandate may be to ensure those in need are able to access nutritional food, it’s clear that its volunteers do much more than simply help to distribute the items.