Nfld. & Labrador

Food bank operators brace for uncertainty as St. John's archdiocese sells properties

Food banks in the St. John's region are already struggling to meet the growing demand. Now there's added uncertainty as four church-based food banks face the prospect of losing their space as churches go up for sale.

St. Vincent de Paul Society operates 4 food pantries at churches that are now up for sale

Sandra Milmore is president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, a voluntary Roman Catholic organization that operates eight food banks in the province. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Food banks in the St. John's region are already struggling to meet the growing demand as food insecurity increases. Now there's added uncertainty as four faith-based food banks face the prospect of losing their space — and possibly having to close — as churches go up for sale.

"It will physically mean we will have no place to operate from," said Sandra Milmore, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The society is a volunteer Roman Catholic organization that operates eight food banks throughout the province, four of them based at Catholic churches in St. John's and Mount Pearl.

But these four churches — St. Peter's and Mary Queen of the World in Mount Pearl, and Corpus Christi and St. Teresa's in St. John's — are among the dozens of properties being sold off by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's in order to settle millions in abuse claims by former residents of the Mount Cashel orphanage.

As part of the tender process, those interested in purchasing these properties have until June 2 to submit a bid, along with 15 per cent of the bid price. 

Four of the food banks operated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society are in St. John's and Mount Pearl, on church properties that are now up for sale. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The congregations at all four churches are raising money in an effort to buy back their places of worship, but it's a competitive process and there's no guarantee they won't be outbid by someone else.

That's creating a wave of concern among people like Sandra Milmore.

"We don't know what churches will be saved. We don't know what churches will be successful in our bids, if any. So that leaves us the stress of finding a place where we need to go," she said.

The society operates food pantries at St. Peter's, Mary Queen of the World and St. Teresa's, with space provided at very minimal cost, and with financial and volunteer support from their respective parishioners. At Corpus Christi, the society operates from a building on the property.

Milmore estimates that between 400 and 500 vulnerable families use these four food banks each month.

"We are very passionate about the people we serve. We pride ourselves on helping the less fortunate in our community," said Milmore.

But it's been one challenge after another for the society. Food drives that helped stock the shelves have all but disappeared because of the pandemic, meaning most food now has to be purchased at prices driven higher and higher by soaring inflation.

Jody Williams is the manager of Bridges to Hope food aid centre in St. John's. It's the busiest food bank in the city, serving more than 100 people each day. 'Right now we’re full to capacity,' says Williams. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Now the society faces possibly its greatest challenge yet, said Milmore.

The ideal scenario would see the congregations successfully buy back their churches, and the society continuing to operate from their current locations.

The worst-case scenario? One or more of the churches are purchased by someone else, and the food banks are dislodged.

Such a shakeup would force the society to make some tough decisions, including whether to operate fewer food banks, or none at all.

"The mood is sombre because we know if we don't have a place to call home and we're forced to close our food banks, we are going to be worried about our families that we serve. Where do they go? How do they get assistance?" Milmore asked.

Lisa Jacobs, a volunteer baker at Bridges to Hope, baked 32 loaves of bread Wednesday morning. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

One answer might by the Bridges to Hope food aid centre, which is the busiest food bank in St. John's, serving about 120 people each day.

While Bridges to Hope has never turned away someone in need, manager Jody Williams said "right now we're full to capacity."

He said the pandemic-driven drop in food donations, a sharp spike in demand by food bank users, and the increasing cost of food has created "a totally unsustainable situation."

If the four faith-based food banks close, Williams expects about half of the families who depend on them will turn to Bridges to Hope.

"I can't imagine having to take on more. Especially when you're getting up into hundreds," he said.

Meanwhile, Sandra Milmore is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

"It's very sad and it's very heartbreaking to know that it's come to this, and what we're going to do and where we're going to go. It's leaving us in limbo and it's been weighing on us."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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