Nfld. & Labrador

What Snowmageddon, COVID-19 have taught groups about food supports in N.L.

With a record-breaking blizzard and a global pandemic, groups that aim to help get food to those in need in Newfoundland and Labrador say there are a lot of lessons to learn about food insecurity.

'It became very obvious' very quickly that people were in need, says Mark Wilson

Some shelves were bare at grocery stores across Newfoundland and Labrador, when the blizzard nicknamed Snowmageddon walloped the province in January 2020. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

It was just about 11 months ago that a massive blizzard dubbed Snowmageddon walloped parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, barring people inside their homes for days at a time.

Then, just a couple months later, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the province, once again isolating people indoors.

For Mark Wilson, one of the founders of a Facebook group called St. John's Food Sharing Co-op-Stone Soup, it has been a year of harsh lessons about food insecurity — the inability to access food because of financial constraints.

"It's been challenging. It almost feels as if Snowmageddon was just a warm-up, at this point, for COVID-19," Wilson said.

The Stone Soup group started during the January 2020 snowstorm's aftermath, as a way to get food and other supplies to those who needed them.

"We've seen a lot of issues surrounding food over the years, and I think it just sort of came to a peak this year with the pandemic and also with Snowmageddon," Wilson said.

"It became very obvious."

In the Facebook group, people in the St. John's area were able to post asking for help if they were in need of food items or other necessities; they could also post on behalf of others who needed that help. Members of the group could then get in touch to fill the need.

Mark Wilson, who founded the Stone Soup group to address community hunger during the state of emergency, packs a bag with a volunteer in January 2020. (Kathryn Lear)

Wilson said 2020 has been a lesson in just how important community-led efforts are.

"Anybody that's sort of open to their neighbours and their community doesn't just drive to work, drive back, park in the garage and walk in their house and forget that they exist within a community, is gonna feel, that is gonna see that. I live downtown so I see it all the time, I see the need," he said.

"What I saw during Snowmageddon is coming back this Christmas, and we see people struggling with the pandemic, and I think that the need is there — and I think it has been all along, but I think it's gonna be a lot more obvious for people. So I hope everyone is in a giving mood this holiday season."

How to help people in need amid restrictions — like a serious blizzard or a global pandemic — has been something Food First NL has also learned in depth this year.

Lessons learned

Josh Smee, CEO of Food First NL, said Snowmageddon was "kind of like training wheels" for figuring out ways to help people remotely, before COVID struck. These kinds of situations also prove how vital grassroots actions, like Stone Soup, are.

The organization also quickly realized during the blizzard that there wasn't a centralized database of available resources where people could look and see the variety of options available.

"So as soon as the pandemic lockdown hit we realized that was gonna be a problem again, but this time we were a bit better prepared, we had one of our staff working almost full time pulling together an online database of what organizations were available and what they were doing," Smee said, adding that they also set up a phone line.

Josh Smee is the CEO of Food First NL, and says the group expects it to be a tough winter and spring after the struggle of the pandemic. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"Because of course a lot of the folks who might need access to that information don't have easy access to the internet, and so that became a really core part of the response in the last months, and I think that made life a fair bit easier for a number of us in this space."

Transportation and how to actually get goods to the people who need it was also a big lesson this year, Smee said.

"During the snow storm one of the big crises was of course no one could go anywhere, and we couldn't get food to the folks who needed it very well and that's where groups like Stone Soup in St. John's played a big role," he said.

"And so going into the pandemic, we quickly went looking for resources to fund delivery and to support that kind of work because we knew how important it would be. And it still is — even though some programs are back to running in person — there's lots of folks who, for health reasons, can't come out."

The lessons of 2020 are going to be vital for the holiday season and into the new year, Smee said, as more people need help.

Food bank demand has increased in 2020, says Food First NL's Josh Smee. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

"We are hearing that there's been a sharp increase in demand, certainly from both the food bank side and from the meal programs … and both sides of the food supports world are saying that demand is shooting up pretty fast," Smee said.

"And there aren't as many emergency resources in the system as there were early in the pandemic, so it's going to be a really challenging winter, and we expect it will be a challenging spring, as some of the tax impacts of the CERB and of being disconnected from income support, those things are really gonna start hitting people. It's gonna be a challenge."

Meanwhile, the Stone Soup group is still active, as are other grassroots efforts in other communities. Wilson said the steady assistance has been great to see, and he hopes it carries on well beyond 2020.

"This was just people coming together, really … that was one of the most magical things I've ever seen because it was literally just people helping people," Wilson said

"People seeing a need and then getting in there and getting the work done to get food to people."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show

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