Manitoulin Family Resources provides programming in the areas of Violence Against Women Prevention, Children’s Services, as well as a Food Bank and Thrift Store. Our food bank serves the communities of Manitoulin Island and normally supports 300-330 individuals per month. All of this programming is done with the most dedicated group of volunteers, under the part-time supervision provided by the Food Security Program Coordinator, Linda Gilchrist. These programs are in the heart, and part of the heart, of Manitoulin Island.
On March 11, 2020, the thrift store did not open. Out of concern for community safety, the decision was made to close the store and determine our course of action. As the province announced the need for those over 70 to self-isolate, we had to acknowledge the vulnerability of our volunteers in this age group, and requested they stay home. The food bank continued to operate on a skeleton crew of three, and the store remained closed.
While the initial days of the pandemic were very quiet for food bank requests, it caused concern that we were not even receiving requests from some of our regular visitors. As most agencies had staff working remotely, Linda began to try to reach out to agencies to remind them that we were here, we were open, and available to help those in need. As COVID numbers increased in the province, several of our local Indigenous communities went into “lockdown” for the protection of their members. We continued to reach out to community leaders and workers and encouraged them to let us know if we could be of assistance.
Referrals began to increase, sometimes high, sometimes low, but then came a day where a worker called with 700 names of those in need. It was a turning point. Instead of sending individual baskets, we prepared pallets for pick up, which were delivered and distributed to households. Our building, which housed the food bank and thrift store was repurposed to be one large food bank, as the space was needed for the amounts of food that we were processing, and to allow for physical distancing of our three individuals meeting the needs of many.
For three consecutive months, our food bank provided food to over 1000 individuals, with the highest month being over 1500. As restrictions have eased in the province, we have seen a drop from those high numbers. Some have speculated that individuals have had financial stability due in large part to CERB, but as CERB evolves and COVID numbers have again started to rise at a faster rate than the earlier wave, we are attempting to prepare for what will come.
The prepackaged food boxes through Feed Ontario were an incredible boon during our high numbers, and the federal grant dollars have allowed us to expand our capacity with commercial grade freezers and coolers in order to accept the food donations.
Our thrift store has remained closed. This has been a loss of income for us of approximately $1000 per week, as well as also a loss to the community, as it is where many people make reasonable household purchases, buy their children’s clothing, and get other much-needed items.
We’ve since been very fortunate to receive funding through the federal Emergency Community Supports Fund to hire a temporary staff person for the remainder of this fiscal year. Their job will be to deliver thrift store items and food to those out in community in need. If people can’t come to us, we will go to them. This will also allow us to create a safe environment to again accept community donations, with appropriate health and safety measures, and help them find their new homes.
Finally, our additional staff person will assist us in adapting our Christmas Campaign and our Christmas Basket assembly and pick up to be COVID-Secure. We know Christmas will come, and we know we will find a way to deliver it. This year saw food banks deemed essential, and the needs of those who are vulnerable must be met. Through the support of our communities, the Food Bank Networks, and Feed Ontario, we will both face, and overcome, these challenges.
This story originally appeared in Hunger Report 2020. To learn more about Manitoulin Family Resources, visit their website Link opens a new window.
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To support the efforts of food banks across Ontario to help families impacted by COVID-19, donate to Feed Ontario.