Port Alberni’s fight to keep food on the table
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt in all Vancouver Island communities and beyond. But the numbers showing increased need for food support in Port Alberni remain astonishing.
“Between the Salvation Army food bank, and the Bread of Life soup kitchen, I think we were probably caring for 300 people a week or so. Now we are caring for upwards of 400 people a day. So I mean, it has just shot through the roof,” says Capt. Michael Ramsay with the Salvation Army in Port Alberni.
“At the points when the restrictions around the pandemic have been most strident, when people have been most vigilant in being safe and things are less open, we were delivering meals to over 700 families in a given day. So, yeah, the need has been far, far greater than I think anybody could have possibly anticipated.”
One answer to that need has been a coalition of community organizations, and funding from United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island.
The Salvation Army, the Bread of Life Centre, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Literacy Alberni have been working together to adapt, expand and enhance food relief services in the Port Alberni area.
Their efforts, which include providing a new mobile kitchen service out of a large van, hamper delivery, a warming centre and a community food cupboard, have attracted further partnerships with other orgs that can provide various other kinds of support.
“Recently, KUU-US Crisis Line has joined in our group here, and they have been an amazing partner,” notes Michael.
“I think the fact that all of our agencies are able to come together and work together and share resources and coordinate efforts, it goes a long way. If you’ve got five or six agencies working together, you’re not duplicating resources, you’re not duplicating work that people are doing, you can streamline everything, you can put together better proposals and everyone can work to their strengths.
“So Canadian Mental Health, obviously mental health services are their strength. They coordinate and spearhead. Salvation Army, a Foodbanks Canada, Foodbank BC representative, we are able to facilitate that sort of thing, and same with the Bread of Life. It’s amazing.”
This coming together of community organizations has been especially important in responding to the enormous growth in need seen there. Michael notes the Port Alberni area already experiences economic challenges, and a forest industry strike had only just ended before the pandemic took hold.
“When you have people who are struggling to get by and you introduce something like this into the mix, it pushes so many people who otherwise would still be getting by right over that edge.”
Users of the various food services provided by this partnership range from the homeless and housing insecure to seniors, families with young children and more.
But of course, the usual ways that these services were provided had to change to keep everyone safe, especially seniors and those with existing conditions.
So Bread of Life and Salvation Army went from providing a soup kitchen and food bank, respectively, to having people pick up ready-made food from the Salvation Army’s front door in a safe manner, as well as delivering hampers to people’s homes. That last required many volunteer drivers coming from a variety or groups and organizations, or as individuals wanting to help.
The addition of a mobile kitchen vehicle, sourced from the Salvation Army in Gibsons, has been extremely important in providing food to the homeless where they are.
“It goes to a number of pre-determined stops 7 days a week, delivering food at the same time, at the same location that can get as close to people in the housing insecure population here as possible so they don’t have to go out and have greater possible exposure to COVID. [This way] they can get it in a safe place, delivered as close to where they are as possible. That’s been an amazing blessing.”
Part of that service has been further interactions between volunteers and those using the service.
Michael recalls one woman approaching the mobile kitchen and sharing with everyone that she had hit a milestone in being clean for two weeks. “She was so proud of hitting that two-week mark,” says Michael. “[Our volunteers] are not just handing out food to people. They are able to sit and listen, encourage, they are able to just be there for people.”
Another new service that the group of organizations is looking to expand is a neighbourhood food cupboard.
“We built one in an area of town which doesn’t have very many services … in the suburbs,” explains Michael.
“There is a lot of hidden homelessness or housing insecure people who live in basement suites who are just making ends meet who are away from the traditional service areas. So we’ve provided a place for them to be able to go and access food very quickly and quietly and securely.
“And also, because this is in a suburban area, other people who live in that area who are more secure in their food, their livelihood, their housing, are able to stock the cupboard themselves.”
“I think after the third day we had it built, it’s been self-sustaining since then: it’s been getting used every day in that neighbourhood by people who need it, and it’s been restocked every day by other people in the neighbourhood. So it’s just been amazing.”
Two more neighbourhood food cupboards are planned.
When he sits back and takes a look at the situation in the Port Alberni area, Michael says he remains amazed by the increase in need seen in the community – more than he could have predicted. But at the same time, he’s amazed by the response from the community.
“The number of people, the number of agencies, the number of groups that have really stepped up to take care of their neighbour, through volunteering … through donations, through supports in other ways, I think it’s been a real testimony to the people in the valley here.”
“I can’t say how impressed I am … it’s just absolutely amazing.”
An integral part of the response in the Alberni Valley has been funding from United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island, through the federal government’s Emergency Community Support Fund.
“We've been so thankful for the United Way funding and support,” says Michael. “The cost associated with this need has been absolutely through the roof. We couldn’t be doing any of this without the support we’ve been receiving … it’s such a blessing and it’s been making a difference in all these people’s lives.”