by Laura Arseneau
Hunger is all around us. You just can’t always see it.
‘Kay’ moved to Fort Erie to escape an abusive situation and because rents were cheaper than in the big city. Kay went on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) after an injury prevented her from continuing to work as a waitress, a job that came with one hot meal a day. The benefit provides Kay with $1100/mth. She found an apartment for $900/month; more than she’d hoped for but she has mobility issues and it’s on the main floor with no stairs to climb.
‘Jack’ is on Ontario Works and receives approximately $750/month to cover rent, utilities, food and clothing. Jack rents a room in a rooming house, sharing one kitchen and one bathroom with five other men, for $600/month.
Both Kay and Jack have less than $6.00 a day for food.
Kay and Jack are part of a recent in-migration of newcomers from outside the area. Some come from as far away as Orangeville or Toronto. They may be young couples with small children, men discharged from detention centres, or seniors whose only income is a government pension. Every day is a trade-off: deciding on whether to forgo a medication, pay for heat, or to skip eating. As winter hits, more will seek refuge at the library, a safe place with heat. Kay and Jack may be your neighbour or a co-worker. Behind closed doors, they might skip meals or not eat for days. They are hungry all the time.
The shelves of the food bank at COPE (Community Outreach Program Erie) in Fort Erie’s north end, are half full the day Kay pays her monthly visit. She shows her ID and proof she is on ODSP. Manager Barb Volske says people like Kay feel ashamed to be seen going in here. “I tell them the only ones who’ll know are you, me and whoever else you share it with.” Anonymity and dignity is so important to clients who struggle with the daily stigma and often, isolation associated with low income.
It’s a common misconception that all food bank users are on social assistance. They are seeing a demographic shift at The Salvation Army’s Gilmore Rd food bank. “With rents skyrocketing and income sources remaining stagnant, we are seeing a number of new families and individuals who used to be able to make ends meet now turning to the food bank,” says The Salvation Army’s Community and Family Services Manager, Anne Watters. “In the first 6 months of 2019, 25% of the clients accessing the food bank were first time users. Individuals who are precariously employed, working multiple part-time jobs and/or working for minimum wage are a growing sector.”
Community meals, like the one St Paul’s Anglican does, is one act of service. The parish has partnered with the Greater Fort Erie Secondary School’s Culinary Program for the past four years. Teacher Afshin Keyvani bustles around the church kitchen, directing his crew of chefs-in-training between sips of strong Turkish coffee. The Grade 10s have pre-made cabbage rolls for this month’s ‘Food for the Soul’. The volunteer parishioners help serve, then sit down with diners to share lunch before cleaning up. For these churches, it is an outreach where feeding folks comes first.
Food banks and community meals can only do so much about hunger in Fort Erie. In 2019, 20 different organizations, including churches, food bank or social services, met to form the Feeding Fort Erie (FFE) group. By pooling resources, information, brain and man-power, they hope to improve access to healthy food for the vulnerable in Fort Erie neighbourhoods.
(This story was first published in the Fort Erie Observer. It has been re-written and submitted to the Nagara Anglican, with permission.)