The number of people visiting food banks and soup kitchens in Nelson did not change much during the pandemic.
But the make-up of the client group was different. There were newcomers and drop-outs.
Andrew Creighton of the Community Food Centre likens it to shaking a snow globe.
The pandemic shook the globe, the flakes have not settled yet and he doesn’t yet know what the new landscape – who is using the centre and for what reasons – will look like when the pandemic is over.
“It’s been a very dynamic 12 months within our clientele,” says Creighton.
Pastor Jim Reimer of Our Daily Bread agrees, and says his soup kitchen saw changes that might seem contradictory: the organization has been feeding fewer people but cooking more meals.
Our Daily Bread is not a food bank but has traditionally served sit-down breakfast and lunch, about 80 portions per day. During most of the pandemic, the numbers were limited to 16 diners at a time, and only for lunch, no breakfasts. Those 16 people have to eat and leave, without any socializing. The kitchen also serves take-out lunches.
Reimer says his clientele tend to be people who don’t or can’t cook at home.
“A lot of our folks have no infrastructure. A number of people who come to Our Daily Bread have no electricity – maybe they have a house, but no electricity. Or they have other barriers. So they can’t cook at home.”
Or perhaps they work part time, he says, and can’t get full-time work, and they augment their income by eating a meal at Our Daily Bread.
One reason fewer people have turned up for for meals is the public health rules at the soup kitchen, such as wearing a mask and physical distancing.
“Oftentimes, they don’t like rules like that,” Reimer says. “They just have trouble with rules. So some people just chose not to come anymore.”
But even with fewer customers and with take-out only, Our Daily Bread has been making more meals than before the pandemic. Reimer says people often ask for two take-out meals, one for a friend, family member, or neighbour, although he thinks it is often saved for an additional meal later in the day.
Before the pandemic, many of his clientele went to the soup kitchen partly for the social connection.
“People really miss the social aspect,” says Reimer. “Before COVID we would have 40 or 50 people hanging out here as long as they could.”
The Food Pantry
That social aspect is important to Nora Nitz, who runs the Food Pantry at St. Saviours Anglican Church.
“There is a camaraderie, even at six feet apart with everybody wearing masks,” says Nitz. “And the people that have been coming to us over the years, they definitely made all the newcomers as comfortable as possible.”
During the pandemic the Food Pantry has seen a significant number of newcomers, although this has dropped off now. Nitz says many of them were on CERB, were underemployed or were making less money at their jobs, such as servers with fewer tips.
For many of them, standing in a line at a food bank for the first time was a humbling experience.
“It takes a lot for a person to first admit to themselves, ‘I can’t do this alone.’ And then they have to stand there and say, ‘Everybody here now knows I can’t do it alone.’ And then their brain goes, ‘Wait, neither can they. I’m not alone.’ There’s a really big relief when people realize, ‘I’m not alone.’”
Nitz says a few of The Food Pantry’s donors ended up using the service during the pandemic.
“They donated in December, and they found themselves standing in line in April.”
The largest group at the Food Pantry is still, as always, seniors and people with disabilities.
The Salvation Army
Dave Sprague, who runs the food bank at the Salvation Army, says they have gained and lost some customers and maintained their average of about 300 grocery bags per month.
New people have started using the service because they lost their jobs.
“And we’ve had a couple of business owners that had shut their doors because of the COVID-19 crisis that have accessed us because they were waiting for their funding to come through,” Sprague says.
He says a number of such people used the food bank for a while during the pandemic but most now have found jobs.
The food bank served more seniors during the pandemic, Sprague says. He is not sure why, but he guesses it’s an increase in the cost of living, and because they were not able to eat out as much as before.
Sprague says a number of regulars have mobility or health issues, and the agency has chosen to make home deliveries to a few of them.
Many of his customers have mental health issues, Sprague says, and some have been anxious about going out in the pandemic, including to the food bank.
“You don’t see them even hanging around downtown right now, because there’s just too many people and their anxiety gets in the way.”
Some of his regulars who spent a lot of time on the street are now housed at the North Shore Inn, where some food is included, so he does not see them as much. Sometimes he sends any excess food such as sandwiches or pastries there.
Nelson Community Food Centre
Andrew Creighton says the Nelson Community Food Centre usually gets about 1,000 visits to its Good Food Bank per month, but during the height of the pandemic there were inconsistent spikes of about 50 per cent. He says the numbers are back to normal now.
In the early days of the pandemic, the centre, which does no means testing, started to see a type of person they did not normally see, and Creighton thinks this may have been people who had just lost their jobs.
“They were people who don’t necessarily look typically low income,” he says. “And that’s a kind of problematic (way of putting it), because you never really know who’s low income and who is not, but driving up in nice cars and … with ski passes.”
He says this phenomenon has dropped off, and he says one such person, later in the year, gave a donation to the centre, explaining that she had needed the food bank until she got on her feet with another job.
Creighton says a number of regulars stopped coming and some of them are returning now, and he doesn’t know why.
“People throughout the pandemic were scrambling and looking for opportunities, and just trying to survive in any way they could,” he says.