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Addressing Hunger the Anonymous Way

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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Written by Josh Dehaas

With the opening of a new food bank to better suit the needs of residents in downtown Guelph, we decided to look into the CSA Food Bank (located in a white house at the corner of South Ring Road and Gordon) and see what they’re doing to serve the needs of their clientele. Sarah Ferber, CSA Food Bank Coordinator, was happy to explain how things work on campus. Here’s what we wanted to know and what she had to say in an e-mail:

Who does the CSA Food Bank serve?

The University of Guelph community which includes mainly students and some staff and volunteers on campus. We currently serve over 400 clients and the number is increasing daily.

How is it funded?

Undergraduate students pay a small amount in their tuition towards the Food Bank and that makes up the majority of our funding. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has also made large donations to us. We do fundraising throughout the year, most recently in collaboration with Alumni Affairs and the Sustainability Office.

How does the CSA Food Bank differ from other food banks?

We are a smaller operation than most city food banks and we are able to offer more variety in our food and services because of that. Clients are able to pick out their own food items rather than receiving a pre-made hamper. We are almost entirely student volunteer run.

Does the CSA Food Bank allow students to get food anonymously?

Yes.

Have you witnessed an increase in the number of clients using the Food Bank in 2007/2008?

We have seen a drastic increase in new clients in F07 and we expect that rise in users to keep up. Our service operates mostly by word of mouth, although we do advertise, and more people are hearing about us and feeling comfortable visiting.

Anything else you'd like to add?

As well as offering free emergency food, the Food Bank also provides clothing, household items, anti-poverty resources and referrals, sustainable living workshops and cooking classes. We are always accepting donations of any kind and welcome new volunteers. We hope to be a location for the drop-off and pick-up of free furniture in the near future as well.

I also asked a few questions of Erinn White who was the first coordinator of the CSA Food Bank back in 2004 to find out some of the challenges she faced and why the Food Bank operates the way it does. She responded by e-mail:

What was your initial association with the CSA Food Bank?

I was hired as the first coordinator of the Food Bank, before it had even opened. When we started out, there was no office - not even shelving for the groceries we'd soon have. It's really come a long way, and I'm inspired by the people who have carried on [the] work - it's so important to so many people.

How did the CSA Food Bank's operational approach differ from other food banks?

We were concerned about the way that food banks traditionally operate - they often ask you to disclose a lot of personal information, and require you to prove your poverty. Some of that had to do with reporting that's required for many food banks to maintain their funding and some of that has to do with the idea that people will "take advantage" or "cheat the system". We wanted to make people feel as safe as possible, particularly in such a small community, so we set up a system where people can be anonymous. We wanted to empower people who used the service - we did that in little ways, like letting people select their own groceries, and we did that in ways that guided the direction of the organization, by asking for feedback and involvement from clients.

What was the initial reaction to the CSA Food Bank from users and potential users?

At first it was hard to raise the profile - maintaining a balance between publicity and preserving people's privacy was hard, so in the first two years many people didn't know who we were or what we did. Many clients at the Food Bank told me that they felt positive about the way the food bank worked. People felt that their dignity and privacy were being protected. Little things make a big difference - like being able to select nutritious foods that are appropriate to your cultural and dietary requirements.

Is there anything about the food bank's current operations that you'd like to see changed?

As far as I know, the number of clients has increased dramatically in the last few years. We used to see maybe 2 or 3 families a day. Now I understand that the food bank sometimes serves as many as 20 people a day. What I'd like to see is a broader effort in the community to look at food security and how it impacts the people around us. I think the on-campus food bank is doing good work towards that goal.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Poverty in our community and on campus is often invisible - people feel stigma about being impoverished, and don't talk about it. It can also feel overwhelming and uncomfortable for people to confront such a pervasive problem. To make change, people need to ask themselves what they can do - and then do it.

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