Recently our family showed up at Ogden Point to support the Mustard Seed Food Bank in the Great Canadian Food Fight, a food and donation drive that is going on across Canada to support food banks. While we were there I had the opportunity to speak to Brent Palmer, Director, Fran Kitson, Advocacy Coordinator, and Rudi Wallace, Food Intake Coordinator for the Mustard Seed. These three people, along with many others, are key to the functioning of the food bank. Their passion and enthusiasm for their work is incredible and enduring, even after years and years of serving individuals and families in dire circumstances. Most moving was the emotion in Brent Palmer’s voice as he described his grave concern for the future of the food bank and the families it serves, especially with Christmas right around the corner. The Mustard Seed Food Bank is currently in crisis.
Since, the food bank conducts all of its operations and services without any government funding, every dollar and food item is garnered solely by donations from individuals, businesses and not-for-profit agencies. However, due to a struggling economy and even more people being in need of food bank services, donations are down by 20 per cent over the same time period in 2010. The Mustard Seed has a budget of more than $2 million per year, which was reduced by 6 per cent in 2012 in anticipation of reduced donations. As a result of their reduced budget, salaries to its employees have also been cut by 25 per cent. And, while the food bank, gratefully accepts all food donations, as Brent Palmer so aptly illustrates, “you can’t fill a gas tank with a potato”, meaning that the Mustard Seed can’t make it without cash donations to run their building and trucks, pay their employees and carry out their many services. Cash donations also increase their food purchasing ability: one dollar donated is worth two dollars in food to the Mustard Seed due to their wholesale purchasing power. The services provided by the Mustard Seed are essential to the over seven thousand individuals and children the food bank serves every month. Services such as:
- the food bank: of the thousands of people who come in for food each month, 55 per cent are working families that are NOT on government assistance; 15 per cent are homeless
- the Hope Farm Healing Centre in the Cowichan Valley, a working farm for recovering addicts
- the family centre, a skills development program to help families living below the poverty line to learn the skills they need to give their family a better future
- counselling, advocacy and outreach services
- a drop-in centre with coffee shop, clothing bank, haircuts, nursing, chapel and a welcoming community
- weekend meals and outreach program
- early literacy program, which distributes over 300 books to children each month
- canning program, which enables the food bank to utilize fruit that would otherwise go to waste, i.e. blighted fruit and cooking apples
- a Christmas program, which provides approximately 800 Christmas hampers for families in need at a very vulnerable time of year
When I spoke with Fran Kitson she stated that she uses a particular analogy when making speeches about the food bank in the community in order to give her listeners a visual of how many people 7,000 is: “imagine the Save-On Foods Arena full of people – that’s how many individuals the Mustard Seed serves each month”. It’s a compelling example, especially when you consider that 30 per cent of those you visualize sitting in the arena are children.
The food bank is assisting families who have fallen on hard times, the kind of circumstances which could happen to people just like you and I; men and women who have perhaps lost their working spouse, become suddenly unemployed, ill or suffered some other unforeseen financial crisis, single parents who can't make ends meet and seniors who can't survive on their pension income alone. What does our city look like without these services? What does it say about us a society when our food bank is no longer able to provide essential services because they lack the support of the community around them? Where do families turn to for help without the services of the Mustard Seed? What happens to the children who consistently go hungry? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself as I look for ways to support our local food bank, which is so much more than just a food bank; it is a place for people to access support, community, education and advocacy.
If even a thousand people donated five or ten dollars per month (an amount none of us would notice on our monthly credit card bill) we could help the Mustard Seed pull through what is to date their worst crisis in funding ever. Reduced food bank services mean families, children, seniors and people in extreme and stressful circumstances are going to go hungry and have nowhere to turn when they need a hand up the most. For many, the food bank is their last hope and a place they can experience a sense of community and encouragement. And, for the employees and hundreds of volunteers that give of their time and energy to the thousands of people served there each month, we need to show our support for the important work they do in our community. I urge you to consider making either a one-time donation or set up a monthly contribution to the food bank, which you can easily do by visiting their website. Let’s rally together and help the Mustard Seed pull through at a time when they are needed the most.
**Please pass this on to as many people as possible**
At our last Seed Ladies Night Out, Village 365 was on site doing research for a blog of their own about Seed Ladies. The work they do is similar to ours; building community, bringing people together, creating relationships and sharing information. We were honoured to be profiled on their site. If you would like to read their blog about Seed Ladies and the other interesting posts therein, click here.
When I think of Easter, I conjure past memories of family gathering to celebrate a special occasion, plentiful food, laughter, children hunting for chocolate eggs, and plush Easter bunnies with floppy ears. Yet a large number of people this Easter will be unable to make a special meal for their family, hide chocolate eggs for their children and otherwise partake in an occasion that so many people are celebrating. This is the sad reality for families in the community who are affected by poverty.
Our Bunny Bags program was borne out of a desire to help children in need enjoy some of the wonder of Easter. With each bag to contain a stuffy and some Easter chocolates, we wanted parents to be able to present the goodies as a gift from the Easter bunny, a magical experience all children deserve to to enjoy.
When we realized that we needed to put together 300 bags in order to provide a bag for each child 10 and under that would be served by the Mustard Seed in the week prior to Easter, we went into high gear, collecting stuffies and chocolates from people we knew in the community.
Because my daughters attend Glenlyon Norfolk school, that was our first point of contact for donations. The response was overwhelming and enthusiastic. Ross Bay and Emmanuel Preschools also canvassed parents for donations, and, over a period of two months we managed to amass over 300 stuffies and enough chocolates and candies for almost 300 Bunny Bags.
Mid-way through the project, Dr. Cheryl Handley, a local dentist, offered to provide a new toothbrush for each bag. It was an amazing idea and made the bags even more special. We knew from experience with our own children that a new toothbrush would be well received. And, sadly, one of those items that, for parents who are struggling just to feed their children, would be a welcome luxury.
When Rogers Chocolates agreed to contribute to our project and donated 100 bags of candies, we surpassed our original goal of 300 Bunny Bags. We were elated and amazed by the success of the project, which would never have gotten off the ground without the generous and thoughtful donations from so many in the community.
This Easter, as I'm watching my own children search for eggs and marvel at the wonder of a visit from the Easter Bunny, I know I will be reflecting on the Mustard Seed children who will have received the Bunny Bags and the relief of their parents knowing that their children can take part in celebrating a holiday that is meaningful to so many. And I will be feeling gratitude for how a community can come together to make something special happen for so many children in need. In the end, that's what it's all about.
This past Christmas, Meghan and I spent some time volunteering at the Mustard Seed Food Bank in order to assist with their annual Christmas hamper distribution program. The program spanned three days, with the first day being devoted to families, the second to couples and the final day to individuals. More than 500 hampers were dispensed from the Mustard Seed over those three days.
On the morning that I volunteered, the day was allocated to couples. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see a group of young women in their late teens or early twenties ready to help. There were also a few men there whom I had seen at the Mustard Seed on many occasions, people who volunteer their time on a regular basis.
The large room at the back of the food bank that is normally devoted to social and ministry space had been transformed into a food warehouse. Pallets stacked with boxes of food were in long rows and reached almost to the top of the high ceiling. Rectangular tables had been assembled end to end in order to allow for an assembly line of food.
Rudi Wallace, the Food Intake Coordinator for the Mustard Seed, a personable and energetic man, gave the food assembly volunteers instructions on how to make up the hampers. There was to be a turkey for each couple, along with a variety of other staples like potatoes and onions. And, he pointed out, we were to be cheerful, festive and friendly; make the clients feel welcome. There was Christmas music playing in the background and we were given Santa hats to wear.
Closest to the doors was a table and computer set up, which was where I sat with another volunteer, greeting those who came in, checking their identification against the database on the computer and then directing them to the tables where other volunteers then assembled their hamper for them.
As people started to trickle in, the woman who was working with me would read out the names from each person’s identification while I searched the database for a match. While we were doing this, we made small talk with each person in front of us, inquiring as to how they were doing and if they had transportation or were walking. I found that most of the people who came in welcomed the opportunity to connect with us and most seemed cheerful and relaxed.
Not every person was ushered forth for their hamper, however, and that was the most difficult part of the job. What I discovered about how the Christmas hampers work was that they are handled by a separate bureau. Each person, couple or family submits an application and then indicates where they would like to receive their hamper from. There were a few occasions where I had to turn people away because when I looked up their name, it was indicated in the database that their hamper was to be collected from another agency, such as the Salvation Army or the Times Colonist. It was heartbreaking news to deliver to people who had the made the trek to the Mustard Seed on the bus or by foot on a particularly cold day. For people trying to secure food, especially those who were elderly or had addiction issues, administrative details had likely been cumbersome and often misunderstood.
At one point a young man came in. He looked cold in his thin shirt and stressed beyond his years. His hands were jammed in his pockets and his eyes were downcast as he quietly asked me if he could have a food hamper. I gently inquired if he had any identification so that I could check his name in the database and he said no, that he had simply come to the Mustard Seed at his girlfriend’s request, that he had a hungry 20-month old baby at home. I knew that this was beyond my authority or expertise and called for Rudi, who was buzzing around answering questions, solving problems and chatting with people as they came in. Rudi seemed to know almost every single client personally and it was evident that everyone trusted and respected him.
I quickly relayed the man’s history, wondering what would happen next, and Rudi patiently explained that without an application for a hamper, he couldn’t get one at that time. Rudi then directed him to reception where he could fill out an application form and come back later that afternoon to see what was left. He assured the now dejected man that there would most likely be something for him if he came back later. The young man then shuffled off to fill out the form, no doubt dreading having to return, empty handed, to his girlfriend and baby .
Later, a smartly dressed middle aged woman came in, looking like anyone you would see at the grocery store or a restaurant. When I searched her name in the database, it indicated that she had already received a Christmas hamper from Santa’s Anonymous. When I explained this, at the same time sending someone to find Rudi, whom I knew I would need for direction, she pointed out that the Santa’s Anonymous hamper, while it had included gifts for her three grandchildren, had contained hardly any food items.
While we waited for Rudi, the young grandmother - we found out she was only forty-nine - went on to tell us about the hardships she had endured taking over custody of her grandchildren from her three children who were unable to raise them, subsisting on disability insurance after being injured on the job, the endless forms she had filled out at various government institutions, and, the worst part, the discrimination she had endured from officials who assumed that she was an addict because she was applying for assistance. I sat there wide-eyed, still trying to reconcile the picture of this well put together and articulate woman who was on the doorstep of the Mustard Seed seeking food to help feed her grandchildren.
By this time, another volunteer, one of the hamper builders, had stopped to listen to the woman’s story as well. I recognized him as one of the regular volunteers, a kindly teddy bear of a man. He immediately offered to give the woman his own hamper, saying in his big but soft voice that she clearly needed it more than he did. I asked the woman to stay put until Rudi came back, thinking to myself that there was probably a protocol to be followed. I was right. Rudi arrived, heard what was going on and swiftly decreed that while her circumstances were indeed difficult, the Mustard Seed could not, in fairness to others, give her another hamper. I could see that there were other factors at play that I was not privy to and just as quickly as she had arrived, the woman gathered her things and left.
It was a privilege to work alongside people like Rudi who do this work every single day and are always cheerful, patient and ready to listen without judgment. Connecting with the people, hearing their stories and being part of such an important program left me energized and wanting to do more for the individuals and families in need that frequent the Mustard Seed. Next Christmas, both Meghan and I want to be part of the hamper program again. This time we plan to help on the day that the hampers to families are dispensed so that we can reach out to people just like us, parents and children trying to have a happy Christmas.