Feeding Queens County’s hungry

by Brittany Wentzell

  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Charlotte White, Debbie Harding, Kevin Oickle, Helen Harrington, and Pat Fralic, all volunteers with the Queens County Food Bank. The food bank recently increased their capacity to meet the needs of their clients.</p>

The Queens County Food Bank has been providing food to needy residents every three weeks instead of four for families and others who are going hungry before month's end.

"Because people, especially the ones with children, were finding [four weeks] was too long, so at a board meeting we decided we would do it every three weeks," said Charlotte White, co-chair of the Queens County Food Bank's board.

"People are very happy about this."

The switch in food distribution is part of a three-month project the food bank piloted, and which is shortly due to end.

The majority of the more than 450 people who rely on the food bank every three weeks are working, but it's not enough, according to White.

"People are working but they're working minimum hours, minimum wage, where do they cut except their food?" said White. "They need to pay their rent, utilities, and they know they can cut food."

She believes an increase in minimum wage could help alleviate the need for the food bank to an extent.

According to recent Statistic Canada numbers, in the Region of Queens some 24 per cent of the population lives in a low income household while the provincial average is 17 per cent.

That means in the region of approximately 10,000 people, some 2,400 of them spend the majority of their earnings on basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.

Despite the fact the food bank is feeding more people, White says they have no trouble getting food. Even if a Feed Nova Scotia shipment is late, the organization is able manage because the greater community gives so much.

The food bank is responsible for a three-day emergency supply, but thanks to donations they can always give extra items.

"Other food banks have told us that if the [Feed Nova Scotia] truck doesn't come, they can't open," said White, adding, Queens doesn't have that issue.

Feed the children

It's not just adults who are having difficulties making ends meet.

According to Statistics Canada just over 30 per cent of children under 18 in the region inhabit low income households - higher than the provincial average of 22.2 per cent and the Canadian average of 17 per cent.

Nor is Queens alone on the South Shore when it comes to that number; some 30 per cent of children in Bridgewater reside in low-income homes.

Kids aren't just accessing food through the food bank either.

White notes that around 65 families with children - totalling about 130 children - make use of their services, but local schools also pitch in where they can.

Liverpool Regional High School (LRHS) sometimes provides students with all of their food for a day. The high school not only has a breakfast program available to the entire school, but they quietly feed around a dozen students lunch each day.

"That's not new," said Jeannie Rhodenizer, principal of LRHS, but adds that the need may be growing.

Rhodenizer says they could probably feed more students lunch, but that many won't accept the help due to pride or not wanting to acknowledge the need for it.

"Oddly enough, the ones who need it most, won't take it."

Nova Scotia's SchoolsPlus program also set up a pantry in the school where students can use discretion to get such things to take home and cook as cans of soup or pasta. Toiletries and personal hygiene items are also available.

"They discovered a need in dealing with the students they work with and that they needed a pantry," said Rhodenizer. "I can't say it's Queens County specific, I think every school is feeding kids."

Rhodenizer also finds it troubling how many students don't know how to cook or care for themselves either.

"Are we into generations of disadvantaged families now? You kind of learn to cook from your parent ... how to budget, how to buy, are those skills not being modeled because of being disadvantaged? How do you go grocery shopping and budget or learn how to roast a chicken and use the bones to make a soup?"

Stacy Thorburn, vice principal at South Queens Middle School, says they are feeding around 20 to 30 kids lunch every day, which accounts for around 30 per cent of their student population.

"We try internally to determine who those kids are," said Thorburn, adding they approach those students as discreetly as possible and set them up with cafeteria staff so they can have a free lunch.

"We know we aren't getting everyone and I know for a fact that there are kids who are not eating at school for various reasons. It's hard for us to catch everyone."

Some of the help comes undocumented too, whether it's from teacher's assistants in the learning centres or cafeteria workers handing a muffin to someone at the end of a lunch break.

Thorburn says that the South Shore Regional School Board does the best they can by providing funding for food and programs, but adds that this is one of the many issues teachers take on outside of their teaching responsibilities.

"When do teachers get to teach? They're being a mental health professional, they're being a nurse, they're being a food provider," said Thorburn. "If all those needs aren't met for kids, they're not going to be able to learn. It's frustrating."

Mayor responds

When asked about whether poverty is on the municipality's radar David Dagley, Mayor of the Region of Queens Municipality, said the government has been working on bringing in new employers to try to bolster the economy after the closure of the Bowater paper mill.

"We have an open door policy in the Region of Queens for business. We're certainly open to new business. We have changed our website material, we have improved upon our property for sale section," he said, adding there has been some success including a new apartment building being built in Liverpool.

But Dagley says Queens isn't an isolated case and that many municipalities and towns are struggling with similar issues.

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