Food insecurity is a growing problem in Manitoba, a problem that the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened. The price of food has risen significantly in the past few years, and the result is that many households no longer have sufficient access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food.
One organization in Niverville is working to shine a light on the problem, and in the process get food into the hands of the people who need it most.
Niverville Helping Hands provides food assistance to those in need in our area, and its organizers say that they see a direct correlation between food insecurity and low income.
In fact, they have always seen this correlation. But the need has recently been growing in a way they’ve never seen before.
“For Helping Hands, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had pretty much tripled how many hampers were requested and we thought that number would prove to be a spike and go down. Now we’ve seen that number has not gone down,” says Lillis Coriveau, chair of the board for Niverville Helping Hands. “We are instead seeing more and more large families struggling, families that have multiple people under their roof, maybe multiple generations and parents living with them. Or maybe they have around four to six kids in the home. So we’re seeing more and more requests for hampers to feed a significant amount of people, whereas we used to see smaller hampers needed for a smaller amount of people in the home.”
Coriveau says that there is no average type of person requesting food assistance. The profile for someone requesting a hamper isn’t simple and clear-cut, because the reality is that food insecurity can affect anyone.
“We used to see a lot of requests from seniors, someone living alone, single-parent families, or pensioners when their allotment doesn’t cover all of their needs,” she says.
One risk factor they’ve identified is that people sometimes don’t ask for help until they’re in an emergency situation.
“People wait until it’s an emergency because it’s a huge, huge deal to ask for help. It’s a very vulnerable place to be,” Coriveau says. “We know that people are in a position where it’s hard, never mind asking for yourself, but for your family. Naming out loud that you have a need feels like you are having to say that you cannot provide or have fallen short. Admitting that out loud is challenging. It’s been really hard for people, but the experience we are giving people is to say, ‘It’s okay, and we’ve got your back.’”
Many people’s incomes have not risen at the same rate as inflation. As this becomes more of an issue, an increasing number of families are realizing that they have even less money to spend on healthy food.
“If you have a vehicle, you are in a position of privilege,” says Coriveau. “You can drive around and find a better price or find a place that is supplying [the item you need]. If you don’t have a vehicle, or if you are in a household where there is one vehicle and the income earner needs it to perform their transportation for the day, it is harder to find good food, never mind the expense of the gas to go around and gather it.”
Empty cupboards exist where we may not expect them, Coriveau wants people to know. And the average person can reduce stigma by learning about food insecurity as well as the supports that exist in the community to help.
“We want people to know that, in general, if you’re an average person with an average family household income, you don’t know who needs help,” she says. “It could be your mother, your sister, your neighbour, or your child’s best friend whose parent could not provide a lunch for them that day. It could be you someday. So let’s talk about it. We see need from all walks of life and we are here to be the welcoming and accepting voice for those who ask.”
Meeting Needs During the Pandemic
When the need for hampers rose at the start of the pandemic, so did the logistical challenges of organizing volunteers and safely securing and storing essential items. Helping Hands helped follow public health restrictions by limiting the number of people in their building, carefully scheduling volunteers to come in stages. They also arranged for hampers to only be picked up outside.
“It’s definitely been interesting and challenging,” says Coriveau. “We have navigated the COVID restrictions by saying that no one is allowed in the pantry anymore. We bring the hamper out to the car in the parking lot. But we run into a challenge in winter when it’s cold and people are waiting outside, so we have started purchasing coffee and muffins. This is to keep people warm… and it also enables us to converse with our clients in a safe atmosphere.”
In addition to exacerbating people’s food needs, the pandemic has also highlighted people’s existing mental health issues and the feelings of isolation that run rampant in the community.
“We noticed people were feeling anxious and alone, and we know that there are more needs here than just food insecurity,” she adds. “So it’s not just food we’re helping with. It’s also community and mental health help and spiritual help. Some people live alone or just found themselves completely overwhelmed with the pandemic. Still, they are hungry for community interaction and they haven’t yet been able to get back to normal life, to get out of the house to find community and combat isolation.”
Coriveau explains that at the start of the pandemic, it was incredible to receive help from other non-profits, churches, and business owners who all said they were observing these same sorts of needs in the community.
Last year, many local churches banded together to create an initiative called the Love Niverville Project.
“It was a really big thing for us to provide that piece of the puzzle,” she says. “We brought the churches in Niverville together for the first time in who knows how long, maybe ever, in a powerful way to extend help to the communities of Niverville, Otterburne, New Bothwell, and Ste. Agathe. This helped increase the entry points for us to receive requests, as we have contacts now in all of those communities.”
Coriveau explains that they network with Southeast Helping Hands as well as other like-minded organizations. These connections help them to source much of the food and monetary donations they rely on. The generosity of local businesses is especially helpful in terms of securing fresh meats, cheeses, milk, and other items.
“We receive donations from Niverville Bigway and we place orders with them to use our donated funds to purchase food and necessary items. We receive meat donations from Country Style Meats and Unger Meats, and we also use funds to place orders through them.”
How to Get Help
Niverville Helping Hands operates out of the Niverville Community Fellowship Church. Volunteers meet every second and fourth Thursday of the month to pack hampers.
For those who may be in need, individuals can contact a variety of non-profits listed on the Helping Hands website, but the best way to directly request a hamper is to use the organization’s online request form.
“The online request form is good for convenience, for those with internet access, and it helps protect their identity because there’s just an added element of anonymity there,” says Coriveau. “If people don’t know how to use online forms or don’t have internet access, we take requests over the phone. Sometimes people won’t use the online request form because they didn’t know they would need it or were putting off acknowledging that they would need it. So we can take a request by phone for more emergent needs.”
Helping Hands is not affiliated with other food banks and is completely sustained by the donations they receive.
“Being a self-sustained initiative alleviates some of the red tape and enables us as a small organization to avoid income testing, which is required by the larger food banks,” says Coriveau. “That’s when a client requesting a food hamper needs to submit a T4 employment income form to prove they need a hamper. Supplying a T4 can be a problematic request for those in immediate need. For us, we are able to hear of a need and meet it immediately.”
The Importance of Nutrition
In addition to providing food hampers, a big goal of Helping Hands is to increase people’s awareness of the importance of nutritious food.
“When trying to feed people on a budget, whether you’re making your own grocery list or working to source hamper items like we do at Helping Hands, it’s easy to end up with a lot of canned goods and a lot of pasta and bread,” Coriveau points out. “But the sources of vitamins and minerals and nutrients that your body needs are harder to find. Canned goods are often too high in sodium, and this is important for both our donors and our clients to learn more about. Our brains and our bodies need adequate protein.”
During the summers they partner with Niverville Homegrown, a local food producer who provides access to fresh produce. They also give away vouchers for milk and eggs and work with local butchers to source fresh meat, which is the best source of protein.
The current season, as we hurtle towards Christmas, is a busy time for all food banks—and Niverville Helping Hands can confirm that they’re experiencing a larger need now than in previous years.
“We were very, very blessed by having a large amount of donations in the last two years,” says Coriveau. “We were funded by the Love Niverville Project, which facilitated the influx of donations when the pandemic started… but we are struggling now as the funding has slowed.”
The most needed items right now include canned vegetables, canned fruit, fruit juice, soups, Kraft dinner, and crackers.
And due to the large number of families looking for food help this year, they also see a significant need for school lunch foods.
“We’ve gotten lots of requests for snack foods for kids, which is not something we used to get a lot of requests for,” she says. “Maybe [the previous night’s] supper wasn’t able to be a large supper, so there are no leftovers. Lunch and snack items are very much needed, like granola bars, fruit cups, and applesauce.”
Food isn’t the only form of donations that make a difference, Coriveau says. Monetary donations are extremely important.
Nearly as important, they also would like to receive new toys to help make Christmas a special time for their clients.
Another helpful type of donation is wrapping paper.
Coriveau adds that when donations are low, food banks must continue to provide basic foods and essentials, and so they sometimes aren’t able to provide as much as they would like.
“We know other food services are saying their hampers are getting smaller and smaller,” she says. “We have so far been very fortunate where we haven’t cut ours back very much, but it is a risk.”
The team is also looking for more participants to donate their time between now and Christmas. Volunteers assist in sorting food, packing hampers, sorting toys, and wrapping gifts.
“Anyone who would like to prepare hampers or wrap presents, just let us know,” she says. “It’s not a huge time commitment. We have to stagger our volunteer schedule anyway, so we can be flexible with when and how often you come. We have a call list so we can ensure we have the volunteer support we need for that week, so even if you can’t commit for every week, we can use you when you’re available.”
Sara Beth Dacombe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen