Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Unseen hunger: How a community effort brought food to those who needed it most

When a group of individuals pooled their resources to bring food and other essentials to neighbours after this months blizzard, they learned much about gaps in our midst, writes Andie Bulman.

Volunteers came together to help neighbours who fell through the cracks after this month's blizzard

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

I often think that I don't have very much, but an experience this weekend has reminded me of the abundance around me, and how vulnerable some people in our very midst are — especially when a blizzard drops upon us and turns us all into shut-ins.

Right after the Jan. 17 blizzard, many of us were able to dig out, or we had friends and family who could help. The army came to extend a hand.

But the help that was needed over the last week or so goes far beyond blocked entrances.

What happens when you don't have a thing to eat?

Last week, I wrote an article for CBC about the fun bartering that spontaneously happened in downtown St. John's during the state of emergency. I wrote about barbecues, hot chocolate and the good-natured cheer that we felt when we helped neighbours.

The article did well. People shared it and widely proclaimed their love of the place and the plucky Newfoundlanders.

My article was cheery, but it didn't tell the whole story.

Mine was the tale of the middle class. Many in my neighborhood were still receiving cheques from their employers. Others are self-employed or work in the arts and have a rainy day savings account (albeit a small one) that will see us safely through.

I told the story of how mostly healthy working professionals coped with a whack of snow.

There are of course other stories, and they're about people who tend to be less visible.

HQ for emergency food

Mark Wilson, founder of the Stone Soup Food Sharing Co-op , invited me to join the group on Friday, seven days after a record-setting blizzard turned eastern Newfoundland on its head. [Volunteers kept going with this effort for another two days.]

The Jimmy Pratt Foundation had donated its space and the Stone Soup group had transformed it into emergency food headquarters. Mark wanted me to witness how many people were negatively affected by the loss of income and the lack of access to food after the storm.

Susan Churchill, left, and one of her neighbours. Churchill often cooks for her neighbours. (Andie Bulman/CBC)

"There are so many hungry people," he told me. "There are way more than people think."

Every surface in the space was piled high with donations. The food was mostly donated by individuals, but some local companies stepped up in a big way. Coleman's, specifically, dropped off an enormous amount of food and expressed their support for this initiative by paying one of their employees to be on-site. Manna Bakery donated a shocking amount of bread and even personally delivered it to headquarters.

There were over thirty volunteers. Some were packing food kits for families, others were out knocking on doors. Many of these individuals had been up all night making soup and baking bread to share, and were still staring at hours of door-to-door deliveries.

Louise Moyes, left, and Renee Hackett were among those who volunteered their time to help people in their area. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

I saw artists and city councillors and librarians. I saw volunteers who had grown up in poverty and were still part of the system themselves. This was a collective grassroots effort. It wasn't spear-headed by any specific non profit. Groups like the Red Cross were not there; this came out of individuals who had organized themselves.

Mark Wilson was conducting inventory, Robyn LeGrow was coordinating food drop-offs, and Louise Moyes was fielding requests and identifying the shelters that hadn't been reached.

There was an intense sense of urgency. One woman was handling the anonymous pleas for help. Dozens of these came in while I was on site.

Volunteers pulled together donations of food and other items, and then prepared packages that could be distributed. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Anonymity was a common theme. LeGrow pointed out that many of the people requesting help were young families. "There's a stigma attached to accessing a free meal or food bank. Many of the people we saw this week felt scared that their children would be taken away or reported to child services."

Myths about poverty? There are more than a few

Some of the infamous trolls might be reading this and thinking, "Well if they can't feed their kids, then child services should get involved."

This thought process demonstrates a psychological concept known as the "fundamental attribution error." This is a tendency to see the behaviour of others as being determined by their character – while excusing our own behaviour based on circumstances. More specifically, if I fell on hard times, I might blame a downturn in the economy. Meanwhile, a neighbour might decide that I was unemployed because of laziness.

Volunteers sorted donations for a specialized food drive in St. John's on Saturday. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

The idea that financial success is the result of merit and that poverty is just as deserved is a myth. It helps us feel better about the inequality in our society, but it's not a productive or helpful way to think.

For a large variety of reasons (many circumstantial), people fell through the cracks during the state of emergency.

Some just did not have enough money to stock up. Others didn't realize that the storm would morph into such a monster. Child assistance and social security cheques were trapped in some postal depot black hole.

Even when stores did open again, many were without a paycheque. Seniors were affected in a huge way and often were not online to ask for help. Similarly, the snow meant that the city was now impossible for those with mobility issues.

Mark was right. There are way more hungry people than we think.

I headed into a van with city councillors Maggie Burton and Hope Jamieson. We stuffed the entire car with bags of groceries and then packed our bodies like sardines in around the food. They knocked on doors and delivered soup, eggs, bread, and milk. The very stuffed van was cleared out in 20 minutes.

'Look for the helpers'

Mr. Rogers famously said in an emergency, "Look for the helpers."

The Stone Soup group were definitely the helpers, but they weren't alone. The Sweet Newfie Kitchen, a small café in Mount Pearl, was also reaching and feeding the vulnerable people in that neighborhood.

Even more notably, the impoverished and vulnerable were helping each other. Stories of digging out neighbours and delivering supplies were told here too.

One neighbour, Susan Churchill, took food donations for several houses on her block. She, more mobile than others, would deliver the food to her neighbours later. A turkey was thawing in her sink.

"I tend to make soup for people in the neighborhood to share. I let people come and go. It makes me feel good to cook for people," Susan said. 

I'm still amazed by the people I met on Saturday. It's easy to be happy and neighbourly when the stakes are manageable, when you know you're going to be fine.

Humour and kindness when you're hungry are the real feat.

Renee Hackett gestures to colleagues at the offices of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, which provided a place for volunteers to work. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

What comes next is a mystery

I'm wary of painting a narrative where the impoverished are inspirational. I don't want to neatly tie the story up with a bow, or make it palatable and easier to swallow, but I was genuinely touched by both the helpers and the people being helped.

This emergency really highlighted and showed us where the gaps are, but what comes next is a mystery.

Volunteers fanned out across residential areas in downtown St. John's to offer emergency supplies of food and other goods. (Andie Bulman/CBC)

LeGrow suggested that government could begin by acknowledging the problem and putting together a plan, so that fewer people go hungry in the next emergency. Wilson and LeGrow also noted that while there are plenty of non-profits that assist vulnerable groups, these group have been overworked and under-resourced, while the social problems continue to grow.

What I witnessed was a group of caring and hard-working people coming together, and making it their focus to help people who were truly vulnerable.

What I also saw was a gap. The experience this month shows that there is a lack of planning and structures during an emergency to help the people who needed it the most.

This needs to change.

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