What does social distancing mean for food banks?

By Gordon Lambie

According to Geneviève Côté, Executive Director of Moisson Estrie, spring is normally a difficult time of year for food banks. The unexpected arrival of drastic measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus have not made that situation any easier.
“The Christmas reserves are used up, so we are a little bit concerned about the amount of donations we are collecting,” Côté said. “It is difficult to say if we will be able to continue to offer services as we have been to date.”
While not casting the blame upon any specific phenomenon directly, the director said that encouraging people to stay home alongside the troubling issue of panic-buying puts the community’s most vulnerable people in a challenging position.
“People in need don’t have the financial means to stockpile,” Côté pointed out. “It can create a great anxiety for people in that kind of vulnerable position to see the population in general start to do things like hoard toilet paper because it leaves them wondering if, by the time they have the money to go get those items, there will be any left.”
Although the Moisson Estrie, director speculated that the coronavirus crisis has given some better-off Canadians a taste of what it means to be concerned about scarcity on a daily basis, she said that she has yet to see that experience translate into increased giving.
“People are thinking of themselves first,” she said, noting that while that is understandable, it makes things more difficult for those committed to helping others. “The person who bought 12 packages of toilet paper should have left some for others, but they could still donate a few to their local food bank,” Côté added, “that would already make a difference.”
Asked about particular needs, Côté said that Moisson Estrie is lacking personal hygiene products as well as basics for cooking like flour, pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, and cooking oil.
“Everything that could be used to prepare a complete meal,” she said. “These are the things that are greatly needed.”
Cathy Hortop, part of the team of volunteers that runs the Cornerstone Foodbank, said that they are not having problems with supply at the moment but have been forced to change the way they operate out of concern for peoples’ safety.
“We’re closed, but we are available,” Hortop said, explaining that the food bank’s usual Saturday morning drop-in time has been put on hold but that the team is still filling orders for people based on individual needs. The volunteer explained that under normal circumstances that drop-in time could see as many as 40 people gathered together in a relatively small space
“What are you going to do, make them wait outside?” she asked, pointing out that it is easier to provide the service in an on-call format while people are being discouraged from gathering in groups.
Anyone looking to get in touch with the Cornerstone food bank is encouraged to reach out by calling Hope Community Church at 819 822-2627.
Côté, who was speaking to The Record from home because she was in self-isolation, shared that Moisson Estrie has also had to start looking at changes to the way it operates.
“We are facing the unknown, and trying to deal with it as carefully as possible,” she said, explaining that where previously clients were greeted on a personalized level to determine their specific needs, people who already have a file open at Moisson Estrie move directly to the food bank. She said that there have also been changes to the organization’s cafeteria service to improve clearning practices and keep more distance between clients.
Exemplified in her own inability to go to the offices, the director shared that Moisson Estrie is also facing staffing problems.
“People need to be absent because the schools and daycares are closed and grandparents who used to come in to help in the food bank are at home looking after children,” she said. “We are worried about being able to continue offering services in the long term.”
Like many other organizations in the region, Moisson Estrie has also had to cancel upcoming fundraising events. Côté said that this is an area of particular concern because those cancellations have fairly immediate consequences on the organization’s cash flow.
To summarize, the food bank needs help.
“We have needs in food sorting, we have need the workshop and in the kitchen,” the director said. “People can come give of their time, or money and they can also give non-perishable goods. It is three simple ways to help.”

Published in the Thursday, March 19 edition of The Record.

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