North

Hay River, N.W.T., soup kitchen struggles with increase in demand

The soup kitchen is serving more people than this time last year, while its president says contributions from the community have slipped.

With more visitors and less funding, the Hay River soup kitchen itself is hitting hard times

Laura Rose, president of the Hay River Soup Kitchen, examines her supplies. She says donations from the community are down even while demand has risen. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Laura Rose flits from station to station – muffins being made here, Jell-O there, egg sandwiches at a table in a corner – dispensing instructions and joking with the volunteers who affectionately refer to her as "mom."

"I don't think that's going to make 10 egg sandwiches," she tells a nine-months pregnant woman with rows of bread spread out in front of her. 

"We'll get some more boiling."

Demand is high. Last winter the soup kitchen fed about 40 or 50 people every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Today, it may serve as many as 70. 

That's in line with programs like it across the North, where, according to a Food Banks Canada report, food bank demand has risen 24.9 per cent since last year.

On days like this, one can never have too many egg sandwiches at the ready.

Rose has been volunteering at the soup kitchen for 20 years, having started during "a rough time" in her life, and over time she grew increasingly involved. 

The small building just outside of downtown Hay River fills a vital role in the community. Twelve volunteers provide meals, grocery hampers, snacks and coffee, as well as a safe, warm place to gather. It helps to answer a nagging question faced by people living in poverty, says Rose.

"Are we going to eat, or are we going to have a roof over our head? Or are we going to have either?" 

Darin Krengnetak bakes muffins in the soup kitchen. Fresh baked goods are available for people to take with them. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Feeling her age, Rose wants to step away from the organization, but there is no one else currently able to work full-time for no pay. And the soup kitchen needs her now more than ever.

A struggling economy in Hay River, says Rose, is leading to more struggling people. That's compounded by a seasonal increase as the winter sets in. In turn, the soup kitchen itself is struggling to pay the bills.

"Our expenses are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and the money coming in is getting less," she says.

"It's a struggle right now. I've got more bills coming in than I've got cash in the bank."

The soup kitchen receives funding from United Way, in-kind donations from grocery stores, and never turns down offers of food or help. Rose says she is also applying for a $5,000 grant from town hall.

But contributions from people in town, which funds most of what they do, have declined as the town has hit hard times. Even a modest cheque from a local businessperson bounced this week. 

"I keep saying, we're all a family in this community. We all have to help one another." 

Glen Tambour is one of the people drinking coffee and warming up inside. The soup kitchen has been helping him make ends meet for years. 

Shane Wilson is a board member at the Hay River Soup Kitchen. One day this week, he says he prepared three large pots of different soups to meet demand. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Tambour has a home on the Hay River Reserve. For many of its clients without a place to live, however, the community that has coalesced around the soup kitchen also helps provide an ad hoc shelter in a town where there is no official shelter.

"We all get together, we find out who doesn't got a place to stay," he says. 

"There's usually somebody that has a place that they can crash out; they can go sleep and don't have to be outside in the cold."

Tambour says children will come across the street from school to get a meal. 

"At lunch time there's usually kids in here, so it gets full," he says. So the regulars wait.

Children make up 38 per cent of those being helped by food banks in the three territories, according to Food Banks Canada.

As he gets up to leave, Tambour jokes and jostles with the other men chatting and working in the cozy room. Then he puts away his coffee mug, and walks past the donated books and bread, and back out into the snow.

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