British Columbia

Richmond Food Bank busier than ever, but stigma continues to keep people from using its services

In November, over 900 households and just over 2,100 individuals used the Richmond Food Bank. Yet, despite the increased numbers, the stigma surrounding food banks remains a large roadblock for some who could benefit from their services.

In November, the Richmond Food Bank served over 900 households and just over 2,100 individuals

Andrew Spence never thought he would need to visit a food bank. But after he lost his job, he's now used its services for the past three years. (Christian Amundson/CBC News)

Standing in the lineup for the Richmond Food Bank, Andrew Spence addresses one of the staff members with a warm, boisterous greeting.

He waits his turn, then walks up to the service door, where two volunteers prepare grocery bags and boxes.

"What kind of meat do you have?" asks Spence, the brim of his cowboy hat blocking a bright December sun.

"We have fish, we have pork," responds one of the volunteers.

Spence chooses the fish, turning down what he doesn't need to stock his fridge and cupboards.

The Richmond Food Bank says client numbers are up. In November, over 900 households and just over 2,100 individuals used its services. Yet, despite the increased numbers, the stigma surrounding food banks remains a large roadblock for some who could benefit from their services.

'Hunger outweighed the harshness of my reality'

Spence has been using the Richmond Food Bank for three years, but before that, weekly visits were never part of his plan. 

"For most of my life, I've never even thought about [the food bank]. Didn't need it and it was meant for people that did," he said.

Spence was an aircraft maintenance engineer by trade. He later taught at an international college in Vancouver, but in 2016 he lost his job and his life began to spiral. He soon found himself sleeping in his car. Eventually, he found a spot in social housing.

Volunteers at the Richmond Food Bank prepare groceries for Spence. (Christian Amundson/CBC News)

Despite some concerns about the stigma surrounding food banks, Spence knew he needed to eat.

"Honestly, I think the hunger outweighed the harshness of my reality," he said about visiting a food bank for the first time.

"I'm not ashamed, but I don't openly say, 'I go to the food bank every week and it's all free.' I come because I need to."

A medical condition in Spence's hands — Dupuytren's contracture — prevents him from working. Without warning, his hands will spasm, cramp, or lose control.

And so he visits the Richmond Food Bank, taking only what he needs.

Stigma keeps people away

Inside the Richmond Food Bank's warehouse, there's a whirl of activity.

Staff and volunteers can be seen sorting donations, checking expiration dates, and stocking and organizing food. Dollies go by topped with boxes of strawberries waiting to be examined: some will still be edible, some ready for the bin.

Executive director Hajira Hussain says the Richmond Food Bank is always busy, but this year is particularly busy. 

"Across the board, more people, more individuals, more households, more younger families" are using the food bank's services, she said.

"Whatever is happening in our economy, it kind of reflects in the lineups here."

Executive director Hajira Hussain packs fruits and vegetables at the Richmond Food Bank. (Christian Amundson/CBC News)

Many of the new clients are people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, she says, noting that when CERB ended, the Richmond Food Bank saw an influx of new faces. 

"People think that the food bank is only for the homeless or for people that don't have any income, but that's not true," said Hussain. "We provide food to people like us. Because anybody can hit hard times."

That stigma surrounding food banks keeps many people from visiting, says Hussain. But she says the food bank is for everybody, if and when they might need it.

Spence agrees the first visit can be difficult.

"Just like the first time we rode a bike, or we drove a car, the first time can be scary. But if you just get over the fear of the stigmatization that you think is there, it won't be an issue."

CBC B.C.'s Food Bank Day is December 4. Donations to the food bank of your choice in British Columbia can be made online. When you donate online, you will receive a tax receipt by email within minutes.

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