COVID-19 kicks food banks in Lake of Bays into overdrive

·5 min read

This summer looks different for everyone thanks to COVID-19 and in Dwight, it means the winter food pantry will stay open year-round to meet the needs of people struggling financially.

In 2018, Huntsville business owner Marie Poirier saw there was a growing need for a food bank in Dwight. At the time, Muskoka’s food banks were predominantly in larger communities, leaving rural residents without.

“I knew people were going hungry in Dwight,” Poirier said. “If you haven’t got money for food, you haven’t got money for gas to drive to Huntsville.”

Growing up, Poirier’s own family experienced financial hardship that led to her parents needing to ask for help to feed their family. She swore then she’d never see anyone go hungry again.

“It’s tough to have to call somebody and say, ‘I can’t afford to put food on the table for my kids,’” said Poirier. “Who wants to say that?”

Dwight Winter Pantry operates out of the town's community centre with 20-odd rotating volunteers who shop, sort and distribute food and other necessary items.

Before COVID, people were welcome to shop the food bank’s shelves, but now the pantry is offering prepackaged bundles through curbside pickup or delivery with a priority on confidentiality.

“It’s an ever-changing model,” Poirier noted, as the pandemic continues to layer on new challenges. At the start of COVID, the pantry was low on stock as buying in bulk was not permitted and trips to grocery stores were limited.

She credits the Dwight Market and Pharmacy with being a vital partner, providing food at cost, sourcing hard-to-find items and making fresh produce available.

“That’s really important,” Poirier said, because donations often come in the form of dry goods, but those staples alone, “are not really a great diet for kids.”

Staying open through the summer was necessary — although businesses are reopening, not everyone is able to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels — Poirier said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of people without jobs to go back to.”

Additionally, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is slated to end Oct. 3 (for those who applied in March). Students could be heading back to school in September and bills are still piling up, Poirier said, as some folks have deferred utility and rent payments.

“They’re going to find themselves needing food,” she said.

The stress of other daily tasks is heightened when there’s no food on the table, said Sandra Daleman, manager of homelessness programs and services at the District of Muskoka.

Food banks — of which there are 10 in Muskoka — are partially funded through Daleman’s department, which receives $1.1 million annually from the province.

This year the department received an additional $1.3 million from the Social Services Relief Fund to help people in Muskoka exceptionally vulnerable due to the impact of COVID-19.

Because of the gravity of the need the pandemic posed, funding was routed to local food banks, including the Dwight Winter Pantry.

“Certainly their needs have grown since COVID,” Daleman said of Muskoka’s food banks, “and we’ve leaned on them to support communities.”

A similar situation is occurring at the Winter Pantry that serves Baysville and Dorset.

In March, when operations usually cease, the decision was made to extend service to the end of May, according to a spokesperson for the pantry. As of press time, the pantry is operating on an on-call, emergency basis with plans to reopen in early November.

“It is hard to determine how many emergencies will dictate our fall opening date,” the pantry said in an email. “We will do what we can as the need changes.”

As the need has grown, Daleman said, so too has awareness of Muskoka’s vulnerable population and a growing understanding that, “many are a paycheque away” from needing help.

Many people see life a little differently now, she said. “They’ve lost their job or they were counting on tourism as their bread and butter for the year and that’s not happening.”

With municipal and community partners, the district assembled a working group — the Community Supports and Collaboration Group — early on in the pandemic to address a variety of needs.

“We needed to have a central repository of all the food and community resources,” Daleman said, adding, “everybody has really stepped up.”

Service clubs, churches and other fundraising groups cannot gather and as a result, financial donations have decreased. The support, said Daleman, is changing and coming from other avenues.

Social services that don’t generally provide food support, like the YWCA, have now taken that on. More than 40 other community groups have received calls for support. When people reach out, it is from an intersection of needs, Daleman said.

And, it isn’t over. She also has her eye on the CERB deadline because she knows in many ways, the work is just beginning.

“It’s a very big question,” Daleman posed. “How are we ever going to recover?”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY

We started to think about how, now that we have learned to live with COVID-19 what does that actually look like? When the pandemic hit, emergency services were plentiful but this reporter wanted to look at the ripple effects of the initial crisis as many people keep talking about how we are, "going back to normal."

At the time of this writing, Kristyn Anthony was a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada

Kristyn Anthony, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com