Thursday, February 7, 2008

My new job: foodbank volunteer

As the weatherman predicted, lots of snow on Wednesday. 30 cm., setting a record here for amount of snow in a single day. Started in the night, took a breather in the morning and then back at it in the afternoon and evening.

On Tuesday night I went to a meeting of the Operating Committee of the Parkdale Foodbank, at St Francis' Table. This is an outreach centre operated by of a small group of Capuchin-Franciscan friars who up until recently ran the foodbank, then called St. Philip's Pantry. But last fall it was decided that this was no longer part of their mandate, so the foodbank is being cut loose. Which means among other things that all of a sudden it's on the hook for $2000 a month in rent. So since that time the volunteers at the foodbank have been scrambling to save the foodbank, since it is actually the last foodbank in Parkdale, one of the poorer areas of the city. The whole thing got some media attention last November and there's been a lot of people stepping forward to volunteer and donate funds, and Brother John of St. Francis' Table is trying to get the foodbank on a self-supporting footing. The Operating Committee was formed to do that.

I met someone from that committee a couple of weeks ago and she suggested I come to this meeting. At the meeting the chairperson Robert suggested that I spend some time volunteering at the foodbank before getting any further involved and on Wednesday I did my first shift. They have a storefront on King St. Folks come in the back door and register at a desk where they are given a number. Volunteers lead each person through the front part of the store where the food is laid out on shelves and help them pick out a week's worth of groceries.

The people who get there first get slightly better choices than the people who arrive later. Things like milk and eggs are in short supply, fresh fruit and veggies are of variable quality. It's all pretty friendly, many of the volunteers are on welfare themselves, or live in the area, or both. A lot of immigrants pass through Parkdale, it's where many get their start in Canada.

Toronto has a very large Tibetan population, the largest in Canada. Many of them came here from the U.S. and already speak English fairly well. Many came to the U.S. in the 1990s on tourist visas, and when their visas expired they had to leave. In 1998-2001 over a thousand of them moved from New York to Toronto. Queen St. has a lot of Tibetan craft stores and restaurants, although it's unclear to me who eats there other than Tibetans since Tibetan cuisine is not exactly in high demand. Anyway, the foodbank users include many Tibetans, some Sudanese refugees, and lots of other groups.

Michael supervises the shifts, he oriented me by walking through with a patron and describing how he decides how much they can have. There are signs saying how much per order, but you have to make judgments based on how many people in the household and that kind of thing. Michael knows everyone. For instance one man that I led through Michael told me that he had recently been kicked out of his place and hadn't made it to the foodbank the previous week, so he should get double rations. And sometimes they want to make deals with you (like maybe no veggies but more bread) and that's OK too. You have to know what's in short supply and what you can be liberal with. And you have to stay with them so you can keep an eye on what they take. They leave by the front door, which has to be locked after each person leaves.

The first half hour is really hectic, I think we had forty people come through, then over the next three hours another forty people came. Forty people doesn't sound like a lot but when you have four patrons and four volunteers trying to pick food in that tiny space, well, it's crowded. The foodbank is open three days a week and people are only supposed to come once a week. But all these rules get bent for particular patrons.

I should have brought a bottle of water with me, I got really thirsty and all there was to drink was really strong coffee. When they first opened the doors there was pizza and coffee, so early patrons got that while they waited their turns. It pays to go early!

Robert came by late in the shift and talked to Daphne, another older woman volunteering there, and I about possibly starting a mentoring program. Another woman that I met the night before, Sue-Anne, suggested this idea and Robert has decided that it's a "woman thing" so he's trying to draft all the older women into it. Whatever, it does sound like an interesting idea.

No comments: