A shrewd shopper at the best of times, Rina Hermkens’ search for affordable groceries has become more difficult in the weeks since Manitoba’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, as many people rushed to stock up on food and supplies.
Now, the 51-year-old sees many of her usual staples sold out in the bigger stores, where prices are typically cheaper, and she said she doesn’t feel safe taking public transit to several different markets across the city to try to hunt down a good deal.
"The corner stores are really expensive. At the grocery stores around my neighbourhood, all the cheap things are gone, there’s no toilet paper there, and I can’t bus around because of COVID. It’s hard," she said.
Hermkens and a coalition of other Manitobans are trying to get the province to raise Employment and Income Assistance rates as part of its COVID-19 response plan, following the B.C. government’s move to do the same last week.
The West End resident, a longtime volunteer at Winnipeg Harvest, is on income assistance. She said she’s missing out on extra food items she used to receive as part of her volunteer benefits, now that many volunteer services are paused to try to slow the spread of the virus. She pays her cellphone bill out of her food budget now that she’s using it more to talk to her doctor and receive tele-health services. So far, the provincial government’s measures to reassure Manitobans struggling because of the virus’s fallout haven’t done much to help her, she said.
"We’re usually the people that they forget," Hermkens said. "They think, oh they’re on welfare, they’re fine. Well, we never were fine on welfare; now it’s even harder for us."
Make Poverty History Manitoba is leading the call for the province to increase EIA rates by $300 a month. Days ago, B.C. promised it would provide $300 extra each month until the end of June for people currently living on social assistance. In Manitoba, single adults on EIA receive roughly $800 per month.
The federal government already announced a $2,000 monthly emergency response benefit for workers who lost their jobs because of COVID-19, but no provincial supports have been announced for Manitobans who were already out of work or living paycheque to paycheque.
Manitoba implemented a rent freeze and announced $100 million in new funding Friday, part of which is set to go toward homeless shelters and making sure Manitobans who can’t pay their hydro, gas or car insurance bills on time aren’t penalized for the next six months. Those are good steps, but more needs to be done, said Michael Barkman, executive director of Make Poverty History.
"There definitely has been not enough announced for individual Manitobans who have lost work, who are renters, or who are low-income and socially excluded, and I think that’s something that our government needs to address in the next week," he said.
Meanwhile, more and more recently laid-off Manitobans are turning to food banks. The fallout from COVID-19 has been striking at Winnipeg Harvest over the past three weeks amid supply-chain struggles at many grocery stores that would normally donate. Numbers of new clients have quadrupled, up from about five new faces a week to upwards of 20, said Meaghan Erbus, Winnipeg Harvest’s advocacy and impact manager.
Not everyone who needs their services is necessarily low-income, but many new clients have reported losing their jobs over the past couple of weeks, Erbus said. A boost of federal funding for food banks is on the way, but it will take time to arrive, and the organization has had to switch to providing larger, monthly food hampers instead of giving out smaller batches of food every two weeks. They’re still taking drop-off donations of food, and financial contributions online.
"We weren’t necessarily set up for this kind of aid. I know it’s unprecedented times and the government’s doing the best that they can, but I think this speaks to a bigger system problem, in terms of system change," Erbus said.
"If people need to rely this heavily on our food bank during a pandemic or some other crisis... maybe we need to re-look at some of our systems in order to accommodate folks so they’re not in a place in which they need to access emergency food when this kind of stuff happens."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.