Nfld. & Labrador

For its Food Helpline, this community group teamed up with a well-known phone number

The new service will join others at the existing 811 HealthLine, helping connect people with their local food services and offering answers for those without access to online services.

'Digital divide' leaves many disconnected from vital food services

Josh Smee says there are obvious benefits for Food First NL to team up with the 811 system. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Not everyone has access to the Internet, but everyone needs to eat. 

That's the simple truth behind the new Community Food Helpline, according to Josh Smee, the chief executive officer of Food First NL, a non-profit organization that campaigns for greater food security in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The new service, which launched this week in order to better connect the province's food programs with their clients, is built around a number that is already familiar: 811, the existing provincial HealthLine. 

"The more that we can have a central point of contact so that you don't have to remember 20 different numbers … the easier it is to navigate," Smee told The St. John's Morning Show

"First and foremost, it was just a question of equity and making sure people who need help could get it easily."

The helpline is a partnership between Food First NL, the Jimmy Pratt Foundation and SeniorsNL. The Jimmy Pratt Foundation is taking the calls for metro-St. John's area, while Food First NL is covering off the rest of the province. SeniorsNL is providing the database.

A question of equity

The questions that the phone line receives can be simple, such as where the nearest food banks are, and where hot meals can be found in the community.

Smee said operators have been trained to navigate Food First NL's database to answer the most common questions. 

More complicated requests will be referred to a Food First NL staffer. Those questions might include how food might be delivered in case someone cannot travel to their local food bank.

Smee said Food First NL chose to partner with 811 because of ease of use, and their previously established call centre. 

'Digital divide' bars access

Creating a phone helpline fills a very important gap that Food First NL has been seeing in the community, and which involves what Smee and others call the "digital divide."

"If you don't have easy Internet access … you might live in a community with limited access, you might not have the income to have a data plan, then it can be a real struggle to find your way through all the different organizations and programs that are providing support right now," he said.

"There's a lot of information that folks who have easy access to the Internet can access in terms of where to go for support." 

Shelves are stocked with donations inside the MUN campus food bank. Many workers have seen new faces since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Many people in the province were already struggling, even before the pandemic.

There has been increased demand for food banks in the province during the pandemic highlighting problems that already existed

"One of the things that's become really clear is how many families were depending on school food programs for a big part or their nutritional needs," said Smee.

"There's quite a large number of families and households in the province that are food insecure. It was around 14 per cent, even before this pandemic, and not everybody was reaching out to organizations for support," he said. "Talking to folks working in meal programs … and food banks, lots of them are seeing lots of new faces during this time because people have begun to realize these supports are available."

The new 811 Food Helpline is one possible tool to meet the increased demand, but for now it remains a test run. 

"We'll see how the uptake is, but right now we'll have staff on until at least the end of July," said Smee. "We'll see what kind of demand there is and what kinds of questions are being asked on the line." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andrew Hawthorn


Andrew Hawthorn is a writer and reporter working with the CBC in St. John's.

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