How a fire at at St. John's food bank warmed hearts across the province

On the morning of Jan. 30, 2019, Eg Walters woke up to the news that his life's work was on fire.

Inside the Community Food Sharing Association's Topsail Road warehouse in St. John's, food was stacked floor to ceiling, more than $300,000 worth, bound for the dozens of food banks around the province that the Association supplies.

But by dawn that day, there was nothing left. A fire had torn through the warehouse, leaving walls charred, supplies burned, and all the food contaminated. 

Mark Cumby, CBC

Later that morning, a visibly distraught Walters addressed the gathered media.

"We have absolutely no food. We don't even have one can of soup that we could distribute." he said.

The new year was barely a month old, but the food bank fire was instantly one of the biggest news stories of 2019. Now, as the year draws to a close, CBC is raising funds for local food banks through its annual Warm Hearts campaign. Click here to learn more.

'The worst thing that ever happened to me'

Walters has long been the public face of food banks in Newfoundland and Labrador. He's served as general manager of the Community Food Sharing Association since it was founded in 1992. His long white beard puts you in mind of another well-known character who's famous for giving. But on that January morning, Walters hit rock bottom.

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"I've been with Community Food Sharing for 27 years, and it's the worst thing that ever happened to me in those 27 years." he said. "I shake now when I get under stress.… To say that it was devastating and stressful would be an understatement."

"My stomach was right up in my throat. To see that, and to know what was in the warehouse. And to wonder, what's going to happen tomorrow?"

Walters wasn't the only person feeling that way.

"I think I burst into tears immediately," laughed CFSA board chairperson Wanda Hillier, who remembered being at work when Walters called. The first thing that came to her mind was that the following Tuesday was shipping day.

"This is like four days from then. So I'm thinking, how do you not have those doors open for a food bank that is out of food?" Hillier said.

Carolyn Stokes/CBC

Those food banks were wondering the same thing. There are 56 groups in Newfoundland and Labrador that operate food banks that are part of the CFSA network. Each of them aims to stock its shelves with locally donated food, but all of them depend to some degree on CFSA to supplement the donations. If a food bank runs short, it's CFSA they call. 

The Single Parent Association of Newfoundland is just one of those groups. The day before the fire, it had collected a seemingly huge supply of food from CFSA. But SPAN's Elaine Balsom said it was barely enough to last for a couple of days. 

"We may have to scale back what we give in our hampers to make things go further or — hopefully it won't come to it, but we may have to have a day that we won't have the food bank actually open, until Community Food Sharing gets back on its feet again." Balsom said at the time.

Bruce Tilley/CBC

As a fellow food bank organizer, Balsom's heart went out to Walters.

"Just getting the news yesterday was heartbreaking, it was just such a shock." she said then. "I can certainly empathize with how Eg must be feeling, because it's devastating to know that you have these people depending on you, and maybe next week we might have to look at some people coming in for food hampers and say, we don't have food to give you."

The fire was out, but the threat of thousands going hungry was hanging in the air.

'Newfoundland and Labrador has our backs'

The morning after the fire, a different kind of spark was kindled. All over the province, people sprang into action, looking to help out in ways big and small. Seemingly every town, every business, every club and association was looking for ways to raise funds, food or both.

At the St. John's Farmers' Market, vendors donated proceeds from sales.

Eddy Kennedy, CBC

"I'm in the food business, you could say," said Jonathan Richler, owner of the Jewish Deli. "What better use of my resources than to help other people eat?"

Public libraries started accepting food donations in place of fines for overdue library books. The corporate community broke out the giant cheques, handing over four- and five-figure sums as fast as the ink could dry.

Two days after the fire came the biggest donation of all: a new warehouse, provided rent free by the provincial government. The space had just been vacated by Eastern Health, which had used it to prepare hospital meals — so it was already fully equipped with everything a food distribution centre needs. 

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"All we had to do was change the phone number," said Walters.

The sudden flurry of public appreciation was an emotional experience for longtime volunteers like Hillier. 

"We realized, 'OK, Newfoundland and Labrador has our back!" she said. "You've got Food Banks Canada calling, [saying] 'How many tractor-trailer loads can you take?' You've got companies calling that are not even in Newfoundland saying, 'We've got food, how much do you want?' To the point that we were delaying trucks because we couldn't accommodate all that was coming in."

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Just one week after the fire, after being left without a single can of soup, the Community Food Sharing Association was up and running again, the lost food more than made up for.

The work of local food banks, and the people behind them, doesn't get celebrated every day. But in those hectic early days of 2019, people in this province showed how much that work means.

"I think what it did was it reawakened the generosity, the generous spirit of Newfoundlanders throughout the whole province and on the mainland as well." said Walters. "All we had to do was tell the story. We didn't say, 'We want this, we want that, we want something else.' All we did was say, 'This is what happened,' — and we kept the faith."

Mark Cumby, CBC

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