Food for thought 

Whistler's food bank offers more than just free food

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Whistler's food bank, like others across the country and indeed around the world is in place to provide assistance to people until they can get back to being self supporting. There is no doubt that Whistler's food bank fills a critical role — and one that is community supported. This week Pique visits our food bank to get a glimpse of the operation and explore who uses it, and we share an interview (first published in the Tyee.ca) with one of the authors of a new book on the rise of food banks, Graham Riches, who argues that food needs to be recognized as a right.

It's 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, and the Whistler food bank is buzzing with activity ahead of the arrival of the weekly customers.

Volunteers — usually between five and 10 every week — chat happily as they go about their work, chopping and wrapping fresh produce, stocking shelves and organizing food by best-before dates.

Donations are wheeled into the back before being weighed and sorted.

On this particular Monday, a large assortment of donations from the recent TED Active conference is waiting to be sorted.

The food bank benefits from many of the conferences that come to Whistler — "one year we got a massive freezer full of bananas from Tough Mudder," one volunteer tells me — but a lot of the weekly donations come from Whistler's grocery stores.

Any necessary items that aren't donated are purchased by the food bank.

"If people are going to donate to us we prefer to get money over food, because that allows us to order what we need," says Sara Jennings, coordinator of the food bank.

"And also we can stretch our dollar further because we have more purchasing power than the individual."

The food bank is well supported financially, with the American Friends of Whistler and Whistler Blackcomb Foundation each providing $5,000 in grant money annually and Nesters Market providing thousands of dollars worth of free food.

Most of the food that is purchased is of the fresh-produce variety, but in the summer months that stock is supplemented by the food bank's backyard garden and donations from the Farmers' Market.

"It's also an educational piece about what you can grow in Whistler and how," Jennings says about the garden.

"The people who access our services actually help harvest it, so if they want kale from the garden they have to cut it themselves."

As it nears 10 a.m., the morning's preparations are almost done and clients are beginning to lineup outside the door.

Once they come inside, the food bank operates kind of "like a store with rules," Jennings says.

Once all of the clients have been served — Jennings is expecting about 40 today — the volunteers will get busy with cleanup, which includes sweeping, mopping, restocking shelves and putting fresh produce away.

In 2014, the Whistler food bank served 2,292 people — 444 of them children.

Of those users, 56 per cent were male.

Almost half of the food bank's users — 43 per cent — are aged 20 to 29. Thirty-two per cent are between 30 and 49 years old, while 21 per cent are over 50.

One of the biggest misconceptions around the food bank is that some of its users may be abusing the services it offers, says Cheryl Skribe, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS).

"I would say that if you were to sort of sit and look and watch people come in, you may have a tendency to think, 'well why is that person here?' and we just don't know," Skribe says.

"We just don't know the circumstances of people and the hard luck that they fall into pretty quick."

Whistler is a unique town in that many of the people who live and work here are young seasonal workers, often from far away places.

In 2014, 33 per cent of users were seasonal workers who had been in Whistler for less than one year, while another 33 per cent had lived here for more than three years.

"I've talked to a dozen kids in the last week-and-a-half that have got injured, and they're living paycheque to paycheque," Skribe says.

"They come from great families from other places, and now they're in this land that's far away from their home with no support system, and friends that are in the same situation as them, living paycheque to paycheque... things can quickly spiral out of control."

For most of the young people who find themselves in that situation, the food bank serves as a temporary crutch to help them through hard times.

In 2014, 74 per cent of users only needed the food bank once or twice in a 12-month period, while just two per cent needed it more than 10 times.

"Even if they need help for a week or two weeks until they find that higher level of support, that's really where we step in," Skribe says.

The No. 1 reason cited for use of the food bank in 2014 was injury or illness, whether that be short- or long-term, physical or mental.

But no matter the reason for using it, the food bank often serves as a first point of contact for people to other services at WCSS.

"It's the first service that they might access," Jennings says.

"So they come here and it's their first point of contact, and then I have the resources to say 'hey, why don't you sit down with this person and have a talk with them, there's other services available.'

"That person may still need the food bank for a little while, but then I find that they're connecting with other services and that then takes away their need for the food bank."

Skribe refers to the food bank as one of three core programs offered through WCSS, along with its outreach and counselling programs.

Having them all on site means easy access to assistance for the people who need it.

"We can connect them to the outreach program immediately," Skribe says, adding that the food bank and WCSS are about offering non-judgmental support.

"We don't want people to feel sad because they're coming for help... we want them to feel like they're here and we're welcoming," she says.

"We've got access to help and support, and please don't feel bad about your choices or your circumstances. We're here to offer whatever we can."

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