July 3, 2020

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Hunger pains

High prices, lack of access pose challenges to feeding the north

This article was published 8/10/2016 (1364 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winter is coming.

As the leaves turn auburn and crunchy, there are added layers of concerns among emergency food providers.

After all, growing season is over, hunting certain species can become more difficult and, in the north, critical food shipments can get stalled if the weather turns bad.

Making sure there is enough food for Manitobans in need is an everyday challenge for Winnipeg Harvest, the province’s largest food bank distributor, but the situation is more acute in the north where high prices and lack of access to quality food create additional obstacles.

Last month, Winnipeg Harvest set out on an emergency four-day trip to deliver produce, non-perishables and baby supplies to food banks in Dauphin, Swan River, Flin Flon and Thompson.

Their mandate was clear. This can’t become a routine trip.

Just as Harvest wasn’t supposed to become a staple in the city when it got off the ground in the 1980s, said executive director David Northcott, but some needs can’t be ignored.

"We don’t want to push anything on people until they ask us," he said in a phone interview. "The risk would be that once you start doing this, it’s hard to (help) a community that becomes dependent on Winnipeg. That’s what we don’t want.

"We want to be able to work with local communities where there’s a sense of independence," he continued. "Where they can not only buy their food locally… but that families can work locally and have enough money coming in to buy local food."

Winnipeg Harvest began 31 years ago. There are now 137 food banks operating within the city and 67 located across the province.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, true food security happens "when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life."

In that spirit, bolstering incomes and northern living allowances are top of the list when it comes to improving food security, Northcott said. To move food from south to north will always be pricey, he said, but to ensure families can afford to live up north is a different story.

"It’s not just a matter of as you go further north, the food is more expensive," Northcott said. "Either you subsidize it by the government or you make sure the family income and social-welfare programs are strong enough that people can afford to purchase food in the north."

Volunteer driver Paul Brault is taking part in his first northern trip with Winnipeg Harvest.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Volunteer driver Paul Brault is taking part in his first northern trip with Winnipeg Harvest.

Barrelling down Highway 6 in a five-tonne refrigerated truck, driver Paul Brault is transporting more than 4,500 kilograms of food— 544 kilograms of potatoes, 400 kilograms of onions, 500 kilograms of other vegetables — alongside 479 litres of milk, 434 portions of Bothwell cheese, 22 cans of formula and 500 pre-packaged food kits.

On the first day of their northern road trip, Harvest’s crew of four takes an unplanned pit stop in Gimli. It’s a town with a reputation for being well-off, yet its food bank struggles to survive.

Rhonda Powers, the executive director of Gimli’s Evergreen Basic Needs, said she often meets people in town who aren’t aware Gimli has a food bank. The popular summer cottage and retirement community of about 6,000 people is 90 kilometres north of Winnipeg and it likes to hide its poverty, Powers said.

When she arrived at Evergreen Basic Needs three years ago, she helped rewrite all their materials to remove words like "less fortunate" and "handout" in an effort to be more welcoming.

Program coordinator Elaine Gibbs and executive director Rhonda Powers at Gimli's only food bank, Evergreen Basic Needs.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Program coordinator Elaine Gibbs and executive director Rhonda Powers at Gimli's only food bank, Evergreen Basic Needs.

More seniors on fixed incomes began arriving at their doors. Some would break down crying when they realized that after decades spent living independently, they could no longer afford all the food they were used to buying.

"Many people feel a deep sense of shame and will sit in the office crying. It takes a gentle touch," Powers said. "And I don’t want to say this is becoming a norm, but it kind of is."

Evergreen Basic Needs wants to keep up with the influx of demand. They served 1,600 hampers last year alone and Powers plans to run a $52,000 deficit this year to keep pace. She already had to lay off some of her 12 staff.

"I often feel like I’m behind the Eight Ball. I’m always looking for money and to cut corners," she said.

"I think they’ll have me standing on the street corner with a bell and kettle this year," she joked ominously.

Next is Dauphin’s food bank, about 325 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, where similar issues are reflected on a larger scale. The RM of Dauphin, home to about 10,000 residents, is also providing food to 10 to 15 surrounding communities on any given day, co-chair Robin Gambler said.

They spend about $1,000 every two to three weeks to buy necessary food staples, such as meat and milk.

 Driver Paul Brault begins to unload food from the Harvest truck upon arriving in Dauphin.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Driver Paul Brault begins to unload food from the Harvest truck upon arriving in Dauphin.

Gambler said she’s looking forward to holiday donation drives ramping up in the next few weeks. The summer months were busier than expected, as more clients from a variety of walks of life — students, seniors, young families, single parents — came in droves. Shelves are bare in some spots.

The food bank, tucked in the basement of the former McKay Residential School, is now part of a mixed-use living and recreational space called Parkland Crossing. Students and single tenants live in the refurbished suites upstairs, while an indoor playground and church lie in another wing.

Upon Harvest’s arrival, volunteers welcome the pallets of fresh produce, milk, formula and non-perishables with open arms.

On one Friday per month, servers from a nearby restaurant called Corrina’s donate all their tips to the food bank, helping them to buy groceries. Members of the community are unfailingly generous when Gambler goes on the local radio station to put calls out for donations. But shipments this big are rare, she said.

The food bank team has tried to offer cooking lessons for their clients, but public interest always waned, Gambler said. Many of their clients live in hotels or don’t have kitchenware to help them cook.

A few days before Harvest arrived, they received a large donation of can openers to be given to clients. Maybe the metal contraptions will encourage some new recruits.

Travelling further into northwest Manitoba, the communities don’t appear to be getting any breaks.

Nutrition North Canada doesn’t apply in this area of the province. The food subsidy program launched by the federal government in 2011 provides discounts to remote communities, and in Manitoba that means fly-in areas in the northeast.

Nutrition North provides subsidies directly to retailers, suppliers and distributors, who must apply to access the discounts through agreements with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). The sellers are then responsible for reducing prices for customers in isolated communities.

Criticized by the auditor general in 2014 for not going far enough in its mandate to make healthy food affordable in far-off locales, Nutrition North got an additional $64.5 million in funding over five years in the Liberals’ 2016 budget. During the election campaign, the Liberals also promised more transparency for the program.

 Robin Gambler and her granddaughter, Acelyn, 8, work together at the Dauphin food bank.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Robin Gambler and her granddaughter, Acelyn, 8, work together at the Dauphin food bank.

It’s a blanket of interwoven issues that cloak the north, not just food prices.

Recent red flags include news about the closure of the Port of Churchill and the loss of 100 jobs; the possible shuttering of The Pas’ paper and pulp mill, which is still looking for a new buyer; and constant rumours about Thompson and Flin Flon’s mining corporations bracing for cuts.

The provincial government recently announced it would freeze the minimum wage for another year in Manitoba, not lending much hope to those who are already living paycheque to paycheque.

A subsidy program would be a boon for towns such as Lynn Lake, roughly 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, where they that can’t access Nutrition North because they have access to an all-weather road. Mayor James Lindsay said he’s had conversations with the federal government to try to find some kind of compromise, but they’ve been unsuccessful.

Currently, Lynn Lake has no food-subsidy program that he’s aware of and the Northern Store has a monopoly on selling fresh goods in the community. Photos from the Northern Stores — be they in towns or on First Nations — tend to go viral on social media as people scoff at their prices. A $33 pack of toilet paper and an $80 steak were recent examples.

Lynn Lake, a town of about 700, made headlines recently by trying to encourage Americans to move north if they don’t like the results of the U.S. election. Lindsay has a red cap bearing the slogan "Make Lynn Lake Great Again", mimicking Republican Party candidate Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

"With our current population base, I don’t think that the community could support a second grocery store. A manageable population increase of 400 to 500 people could open the door for some competition," he said. "Given our location, personally, I’d rather see the quantity, variety and quality of food improve, rather than a reduction in price."

There are no food banks or soup kitchens in town, but there are breakfast and lunch programs available for children at the school and friendship centre.

The mayor estimated about 25 per cent of people in Lynn Lake hunt and fish and 40 per cent gather berries during the fall. Many drive 100 kilometres south to Leaf Rapids to buy the essentials, especially milk, Lindsay said. Milk costs about $10 per jug in Lynn Lake and is half the price in Leaf Rapids, he said.

Provincially, a government body called AFFIRM (Affordable Food in Remote Canada), aims to regulate food prices up north.

The program "reduces the price of milk, fresh vegetables and fresh fruits in eligible remote Northern communities through a subsidy. The subsidy is provided to participating stores and each store is required to pass on the full subsidy to the customer by reducing the price of milk, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit," the province says on the AFFIRM webpage.

Mayor Lindsay said he’d never heard of the program. Neither had his chief administrative officer Ric Stryde.

How the food prices are being monitored remains somewhat vague. The government website promises "regular monitoring" and provides a hotline number (1-855-494-7352) for those with questions. (The Free Press’s call for comment was not returned by deadline.)

David Northcott points out the province has no issues regulating liquor prices across Manitoba, so why can’t they do the same for milk or food?

Volunteers Phyllis Hunt and Kay Betcher sort through the toiletry donations at the Swan Valley food bank, making sure to remove items with alcohol contents.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Volunteers Phyllis Hunt and Kay Betcher sort through the toiletry donations at the Swan Valley food bank, making sure to remove items with alcohol contents.

On the road again with Harvest and their third stop is Swan River.

The Swan Valley food bank operates on a relatively tiny budget of $20,000 per year. There is no staff, just eight gung-ho volunteers.

As Harvest brought in a shipment including corn, potatoes and sought-after baby formula, co-chair Jake Warkentin explained they’ve gotten 22 per cent more donations within a two-year span.

From April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015, they received about 9,000 pounds of donations. From April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016, they brought in about 13,300 pounds.

Last year, they served 535 single-person hampers and 797 family-sized hampers, not including their large Christmas run of 190 hampers.

They’re gearing up for the holiday season (their busiest) by getting a head start on hamper making. Each hamper comes with a small pack of toiletries.

Volunteers Phyllis Hunt and Kay Betcher divvy the shampoos, body washes and hair gels, throwing away those with alcohol listed in the ingredients. Posters around the food bank advertise those who are intoxicated upon arrival may be turned away.

Over a pizza lunch, the Swan River and Harvest volunteers mingle and put names to the faces they’ve talked too often on the phone while co-ordinating shipments. They rarely get to visit.

The volunteers ask Harvest how they can do better for their clients, with their limited budget and space. They’re determined to help everyone.

Rhonda Powers, the executive director of Gimli-based food bank, Evergreen Basic Needs, carries a bag of corn into the Flin Flon food bank.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Rhonda Powers, the executive director of Gimli-based food bank, Evergreen Basic Needs, carries a bag of corn into the Flin Flon food bank.

The next day in Flin Flon, another warm reception. The Lord’s Bounty Food Bank just reopened a day earlier after a fire struck its old location two and a half weeks previously.

About a dozen people are on hand to welcome Harvest, unloading the truck and stocking the shelves in quick succession.

The emergency food run couldn’t have come at a better time. After their closure, many hungry people in the community had nowhere to turn.

Similar to Swan River, the client tally swelled about 20 per cent, but that was within a single year — from August 2015 to August 2016. It’s a troubling trend considering the town’s population seems to be decreasing. But resources in and around town continue to dwindle.

"Before the fire, there was a trend in increasing usage, so just knowing that the need is going up and then couple that with the fire, we’re expecting it to be busy," said Joanne LeDoux, a volunteer and board member.

Emergency food runs such as Harvest’s are a Band-Aid solution when the rural food banks need a full-blown first-aid kit.

 Volunteer Norman Allen wheels a dolly full of flour into the Salvation Army food bank in Thompson.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Volunteer Norman Allen wheels a dolly full of flour into the Salvation Army food bank in Thompson.

At Harvest’s last stop in Thompson, the disparity between the rich and the poor is great, said Roy Bladen, a community minister. Not everyone has a northern living allowance.

Bladen, the ministry director for the local Salvation Army, which runs the town’s sole food bank, said he scrounges to fundraise. It’s harder in Thompson than in any other province he’s worked in, he said.

Trucking company Gardewine offered to transport pallets of food as needed for Harvest, going as far north as Thompson. But for the northern food banks, vying to be self-sufficient is paramount.

MP Niki Ashton, a Thompson native in her third term representing Churchill-Keewatinook, said it’s the poverty up north that’s the root cause of many problems, including food insecurity and mental-health crises.

"I’ve heard really heartbreaking stories about how food insecurity affects northern people — indigenous and northern people more broadly — on a daily basis," she said in a phone interview. "Somebody who worked in Shamattawa (First Nation) said that they remember talking with kids about what needs to be done to prevent suicides. They remember hearing from a kid who said, ‘I want to kill myself because I’m so hungry.’

"Food insecurity is deeply tied into the broader insecurity and marginalization that people face in our north," Ashton said.

More support needs to be given to fishermen and hunters to further their causes and to diversify economies in the north with more jobs and social assistance programs, she added, including in Shamattawa.

The remote First Nation, about 750 kilometres from Winnipeg, is reachable only by plane right now and a fire razed its only grocery store, band office, radio station and 911 emergency centre on Sept. 22.

The Northern Store set up a temporary location in an old school gym as the community rebuilds from the rubble.

Shelves inside Thompson's only food bank, sponsored by the local Salvation Army, aren't yet full before Thanksgiving, which worried the ministry director.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Shelves inside Thompson's only food bank, sponsored by the local Salvation Army, aren't yet full before Thanksgiving, which worried the ministry director.

Driving home, the crew reflects on those they’ve met and their ambitions despite a sense of difficulties they’ll face as the air turns cool.

There’s an undeniable urge to succeed in the north. Residents are kind and curious about visitors. The food bank volunteers persevere regardless of hardships, obviously trying their best.

Northcott said he’d like to take the northern trip when Harvest goes back next year to learn more about the determined folks himself.

In the meantime, he challenged southerners to do two things to help their northern neighbours.

"If you’re purchasing 14 days worth of food, can you purchase a half day’s worth of food to put into your local food program? If everybody does a little bit, then that helps considerably," he said. "But the other thing is to be aware of why people are hungry in the first place.

"Become more aware of the issues so that we can collectively push forward."

j.botelho.urbanski@gmail.com

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