|A corner of the Ottawa Food Bank's warehouse|
"Wealth in Ottawa is hidden; so is poverty," said Tricia Johnson during her introduction. More than 41,000 people in and around Ottawa are helped each month, 36% of whom are children.
"We're looking for solutions, not throwing food and money at the issues!" she stated. Even so, $6-million is needed to operate the Ottawa Food Bank each year. The main emphasis is to solicit donations from private individuals rather than companies, because the former are a more consistent source of income. The City of Ottawa annually contributes 3% of the Food Bank's income, and there are also regular offerings from institutions such as the Trillium Foundation. For instance, a grant from Trillium recently allowed the Ottawa Food Bank to put $90,000 towards a new vehicle. The truck-drivers, by the way, are all rigorously trained professionals assisted by unpaid volunteers.
The list of local community agencies to whom the Food Bank delivers supplies is very long; there are currently 112 of them. We saw this list affixed to the warehouse wall, and it includes after-school programs and summer lunch programs. Also listed are the agencies that provide emergency food hampers for individuals and families, and agencies that provide hot meals for people in need of food immediately. Before the Ottawa Food Bank was first established as a "temporary measure" in 1984, church groups were the organisations helping hungry people in our city.
In the main hall of the warehouse, products are boxed and stored within defined categories. $125,000 a year is spent on providing baby food (and diapers). The other food deemed essential has green and yellow labels in the warehouse: peanut butter, baked beans, soups. The less essential items —desserts, bottles or cans of pop, etc. — have pink labels. These are still wanted, though, for the sake of variety in people's diets.
The Food Bank relies on the assistance of some 3000 temporary volunteers to help sort the donations from food-drives throughout the year. Paul Brown, the operations manager, attributes this year's unseasonally warm weather to the poor public response to this year's Thanksgiving Food drive, only half as effective as usual.
The expiry date of foodstuffs is strictly adhered to and perishable items are very carefully stored and dispatched at the right temperature; food safety is a top priority. Paul had a lot to say about this. He ensures that all incoming products are carefully labelled, because one piece of bad publicity could ruin the Food Bank's reputation. Fresh produce arrives in refrigerated trucks. The Bud-Lite boxes we were shown contained frozen meat, not beer! Collecting and delivering meat is a new venture, supplying protein for hot meal programs that serve people throughout the city. The local Metro or Walmart grocery stores freeze their excess meat in advance of the pick-up. For community food banks, the Ottawa Food Bank purchases ground beef and frozen fish for food hampers made available to impoverished households.
Tofu and dairy products are also donated by the store chains. In the walk-in fridge (we all walked in to take a look) were milk and milk-based drinks — even cartons of caramel latte! A grocery chain recently offered several boxes of fresh oranges which couldn't be sold at their stores because one or two of the oranges weren't in perfect condition. Fruit juices, cereal bars and apples are set aside for school programs. We also saw boxes full of potatoes and carrots. However, one type of food that is not acceptable at the warehouse is anything that's pre-baked. "I just don't want it sitting here, rotting!" said Paul.
They are exploring various possibilities to discover which model of Food Banking works best and liaising with the local press to make this a public conversation.
He mentioned the Food Bank's own farm in Stittsville, where this year's squash, zucchini and cauliflower harvest was disappointing, because of the soggy fields. Generally though, the community farm has proven of great benefit to the city, school groups helping with the harvesting of (almost 100% organic) fruit and vegetables. The stated aim of the Food Bank is to provide their clients with at least 50% fresh food in their hampers, and they are starting to reach that target. A scheme that's been running for three winters now, reFresh, is an attempt to provide local fresh produce throughout the year, from various sources. One high school in town (I'm not sure which) is experimentally growing food in a top floor classroom garden year round, which they are donating to the Food Bank.
The Food Bank is responsible for 40-55 food pick-ups and drop-offs a day (14 tons of food are distributed each day. Inevitably, new immigrants from the middle-east want halal meat, chickpeas, lentils and such, rather than the more traditional sort of Canadian ingredients for their meals. A generous local supplier is selling bulk oatmeal to the Food Bank for a price five times less than what's charged in the stores. Apparently the Syrian refugee immigrants like to have such raw ingredients; they also prefer their food un-canned. Produce like this is quite often donated at cost.
What can individuals give that is welcome here? Well, not just food. Baby products such as boxes of diapers are also very much in demand. The conventional way to give to the food bank is to buy some extra items when you go shopping and (encouraged by the posters displayed in local grocery stores) leave these for the Food Bank in the receptacles provided. One of our fellow guests on Tuesday wondered whether a similar scheme might work for online shoppers.
A consulting firm recently donated the time and expertise of one of their young engineers to observe and then work on the logistics of the Ottawa Food Bank's truck routes, which apparently resulted in huge savings.
At the end of our tour we returned to the reception room where the Executive Director, Michael Maidment, spoke to us. He feels that Food Banks are the barometer for social conditions in a city, and his dream is for them one day to become unnecessary!
To acquire food, a person needs to register with the agency, showing some ID and stating where (s)he lives. The intake of clients is analysed, so that trends can be detected. One trend has already become noticeable: the number of seniors needing to be fed is growing.
There is never any income check, but usage rates and demographic statistics are tracked to better understand the need for food in our community. Nobody who wants help is turned away, but a few people might be redirected to a different agency for next time, if necessary. Families or individuals in need of food assistance are given "emergency" 3-5 day food hampers, usually available once a month. People in need of immediate food are directed to programs that prepare hot meals. Michael and his colleagues have initiated a 2-year study in partnership with the University of Ottawa to determine the effectiveness of various food bank models being used in our city.
The Food Bank also offers its resources and expertise in the event of disasters such as this year's spring floods, thus being a valuable part of Ottawa's emergency response preparedness.
There are fundraising, operations, outreach and event-planning teams, with 29 volunteers assisting the core members of staff.
Conversations between Food Bank personnel and Ottawa's Public Health authorities are nowadays taking place; this new initiative has led to the launch of "Health Smart", whereby substantial changes were made to ensure that the food given to hungry people has a lower fat, sodium, and sugar content, and increased protein and fibre.
I asked a question: "Are the recipients of the food given any guidance as to what to do with it?" and the answer is: yes. Into boxes containing eggs, milk, fish, ground beef, squash and such, recipes are often thrown in, too. Some of the distribution agencies even offer cooking classes for the people that need them, in foreign languages if necessary. One such encouragement program was entitled "Men Can Cook!" after which another came on offer: "Women Can Cook Better!"
The Food Bank network allows people to choose what to receive from their reliable service. The main message I heard from the kind and dedicated people in charge is that they are determined that all their recipients be treated with respect and dignity.