Christmas Cheer Board flooded with pleas for help, sees 40,000 calls on opening day
'There just seems to be a real desperate need for food out there': executive director
Winnipeg's Christmas Cheer Board is experiencing demand far above any year in recent memory, with 40,000 calls on Monday, the opening day of the 2022 campaign.
There were more than 13,000 calls in the first hour alone, executive director Shawna Bell told CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Tuesday.
"Last year, our first day was 23,000, so it's a significant increase over last year for sure," she said. "There just seems to be a real desperate need for food out there."
Every year at this time, the charity assembles hampers with toys, food and other items that it then delivers, with the help of an army of volunteers, to families across Winnipeg living below the poverty level.
It was started in 1919 by a number of Winnipeg churches to help widows and orphans of the soldiers lost during the First World War. It has evolved over the years but its aim remains the same — helping the city's less fortunate. Those who qualify can apply for a hamper for themselves or their household.
Bell knew there would be increased demand this year as food prices and the cost of living continue to soar, which is why the phone lines for applicants were opened a week earlier than usual.
But the extent of it was shocking, she said.
"It's rough out there and people just are trying to stretch those dollars to to actually just feed themselves as little as they can for as long as they can," Bell said, noting it's physically impossible to respond to 40,000 on the same day.
The calls go into a queue through the cheer board and through the province's Employment and Income Assistance program. On average, about 80 calls can be processed an hour, Bell says.
"We're doing the best we can," Bell said. "We're a volunteer organization and we're going to make sure we can answer as many of those calls as we can."
It typically delivers about 18,000 hampers each Christmas season to individuals and families — far less than what is needed this year.
"We've been working with a number of different social agencies throughout the year just trying to get ready for this year, [but] I think everybody is kind of in the same circumstance as we are," Bell said, adding the cheer board might need to consider something it has never done before: asking the province for help.
"If there's a need to — and maybe there is this year — that's something that will have to look into," Bell said. "It's something we haven't done but these are unprecedented times too, so that's a possibility for sure."
As for the general public, any help though donations or by volunteering would be welcomed, she says.
"I think food is very important to get out there … canned vegetables, canned fruit, pasta, spaghetti sauce, a lot of the staple items. Those are very, very important for us for packing the hampers," Bell said.
"Anything that we can get in that way is is greatly appreciated and we will take it at our 1821 Wellington Ave. location. And just any opportunity that people have, if they're interested in supporting us, they can call us at  989-5680 and we'll be happy to help them."
Food bank use surges
Manitoba's largest food bank is also facing record appeals for its service.
"What we've been seeing for this entire year has been demand for food banks like we've never seen before here in Winnipeg," said Vince Barletta, CEO of Winnipeg-based Harvest Manitoba, adding the pressures from inflation are "pushing families to the brink."
More than 15,000 harvest hampers went out the door in October, supporting 40,000 people.
"That's an all-time record for us and, sadly, we're not expecting that trend to start going in the other direction anytime soon," Barletta said.
"When prices go up and wages don't keep pace, or benefits don't keep keep pace like disability benefits or pension benefits, it pushes people who already live on the edge and live paycheque to paycheque … into a position where they're just not able to afford those staple items, like groceries."
However, that's only part of the story. The other pressure on harvest comes from the influx of newcomers from Ukraine. To date, 812 families have been supported by harvest, Barletta says.
As well, demand always increase in the colder months arrive higher transportation costs and heating costs put a squeeze on people's budgets, he said.
The 15,016 hampers in October was the first time Manitoba Harvest ever surpassed 15,000 in a single month. The same month last year saw 11,000 hampers go out.
At the same time, the volume of food being donated is declining, forcing the organization to purchase more supplies.
"We're buying food in unprecedented quantities. Thankfully, at this point, the amount of funds that have been coming in have allowed harvest to go out and purchase the food that we need," Barletta said.
Training program a reason for hope: Harvest CEO
Other aid organizations in Manitoba are also seeing a flood of new clients.
The Manitoba Islamic Association says 15 per cent of its food bank clients come from outside the province's Muslim community.
"That's really shocking to us, because we had thought that between ... Harvest and the other groups that provide food hampers or food banks, we didn't realize that we would be seeing the demand from outside of the community, but we definitely are," said Ruheen Aziz, vice-chair and treasurer for the Islamic association.
It takes in requests for hampers on a monthly basis, and demand has always exceeded the amount of food the association could provide, Aziz said.
While in the past, it would take a week or two after the registration period opened for the list to fill up, it now reaches capacity within five or 10 minutes, she said.
But there is reason for hope for a turnaround down the road, says Harvest Manitoba's Barletta.
Harvest's employment training programs, which had been shut down by the pandemic, are being restarted. They offer food bank clients work experience that can be added to a resume and lead to employment.
"We've just taken in our first cohort of trainees this month. We're hoping that over the long term that's going to help folks achieve some greater financial independence and food security," Barletta said.
With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Cameron MacLean