How this Ontario church is tackling food insecurity

As organizations providing free meals in Bruce and Grey Counties saw demand increase during the pandemic, Dean and Maxine Benders opened their church doors to lend support
By Mary Baxter - Published on Dec 30, 2020
Chelsey Baptist church’s hot meal take-away and delivery service is one of the programs providing meals free of charge during the pandemic in Bruce County. (Mary Baxter)

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Katherine Seip arrives shortly after 11 a.m., the first to pick up her Thursday dinner. She pauses during the walk up the wooden wheelchair ramp to the Chesley Baptist Church sanctuary. The building, on the main street of the Bruce County community of 1,800, is kitty-corner to her home, but Seip, 66, has arthritis and a sore back. She uses a walking stick for support.

When she arrives, she goes inside, but afterward a volunteer sets out a chair on the tiny deck out front and hands her a coffee — she’s not allowed to stay inside because of COVID-19 precautions. “It’s pretty good, and you get a hot meal,” Seip says of the ham, beans, salad, and bun that will soon arrive packed in a white Styrofoam container to take home. “I can cook,” she adds, but it’s difficult to cook for one. “My son was living with me, but he bought a place of his own,” she says. “I live with my cat.”

Eleven months ago, Seip was one of 50 people who visited the church for its weekly sit-down meal. She was also a regular at a meal program offered three times a week at another church on Chesley’s outskirts. But in March, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, both programs closed.

Now, the retiree is among nearly 150 people who subscribe to the Baptist church’s new hot meal take-away and delivery service. Dean Benders, the church’s pastor, who runs the program with his wife, Maxine, says demand for the service escalated quickly. There has also been increased demand for a frozen-meal service that the program distributes on behalf of St. Aidan’s Community Catholic Church, in South Bruce. “It’s doable,” Dean says, “But we had no idea the numbers would climb [so high].”

According to data collected by the United Way of Bruce and Grey, organizations in the region that continued to provide meals free of charge during the pandemic (six of the area's 15 programs shut down) have seen a 300 per cent increase in demand. “We’ve served over 100,000 meals through 2020,” says Francesca Dobbyn, the local United Way's executive director, of efforts underway in the region.

Valerie Tarasuk, a nutrition sciences professor at the University of Toronto, says in Chesley, the need may always have been there. She explains that people currently being served might have been shut in before the pandemic: "They're now being served because it's a mobile program as opposed to a stationary meal program." Moreover, she adds, people may view delivery as less "stigmatizing or not as demanding of people as the prior program where people had to come to a certain place at a certain time to eat with other people. That would have been a deterrent for some people." Tarasuk notes, however, that programs such as the church's don't typically screen participants to gather information on why they're using the program, but without that information, it's impossible to determine conclusively the main drivers of need.

Amy MacDonald, acting public-health manager – foundations with Huron and Perth Public Health and a spokesperson for Ontario Dietitians in Public Health, sees a similar demand for meal programs in her area. She suspects the pandemic plays a role. “We do know that COVID is making the problem of food insecurity worse,” she says. “Prior to COVID, 13 per cent of households across Ontario were food insecure. Now we know that that number, anecdotally, at least, is likely much more.”

Dean suspects loneliness and poverty are at play. “We deliver to a lot of single seniors; that's the only contact they have with people,” he says. There are single mothers with children. Some people can drive, but others, who live in the country, don’t have a vehicle, and the single grocery store in Chesley “can be a little costly,” he says.

The Benders launched the service in April after representatives from the United Way of Bruce Grey and the Grey Bruce public health unit asked if they might consider taking it on. Awareness has grown mostly via word of mouth and through referrals.

It has become a full-time job, Dean says. On this particular Thursday, he and Maxine arrived at the church at 8 a.m. to cook. Four days earlier, on Monday, they drove to Owen Sound for groceries. They called people to confirm orders on Tuesday and spent much of Wednesday preparing to cook.

As the clock nears 11 a.m., the basement bustles with activity. “We’ve got six hams and four roasting pans of beans,” Maxine announces as she sets a roasting pan on a warming plate. She was so worried about the beans being dry that now they’re too runny, she jokes. A volunteer lights the hot plate.

Behind Maxine, Christmas carols play on the television, and rows of banquet tables crowd the room. At one table, a volunteer tears buns apart and piles them in a basket. Another hands Maxine a list of delivery orders. They review it together. At the back door, Bishop Tom Twose, who coordinates the frozen-meal program, arrives lugging bags of frozen meals. A chorus of “Hi, Father Tom,” greets him.

Two-thirds of the hot meals are delivered, as are roughly 75 frozen meals a week. Everyone who works on the program is a volunteer — the Benders, the women who greet people on the church’s main floor and help package meals downstairs, and the drivers (there are three for the hot-meal program, including Dean, and another minister who delivers frozen meals to people in Walkerton).

“It’s the idea of giving hope,” says Bruce Schingh, one of the drivers. Each week, the retired mailman delivers to 10 people. Even before the pandemic, many of the recipients didn’t get out. “And if they’re looking at the TV and the news, that’s pretty depressing stuff,” he says.

The Benders use funding from the United Way of Bruce Grey to cover the more than $500 a week spent on food. United Way has also provided cash to buy a dishwasher and replace one of the church’s stoves (they use three).

Yet Dobbyn wonders why charitable and volunteer-run organizations are shouldering programs that combat food insecurity. Access to food is a basic right, she says, and charitable programs can be precarious. Earlier this month, a hot meal program in Meaford, similar to the one in Chesley, briefly suspended service because of weather. “When people don't have self-determination, when they're relying on charities for basic needs, the risk is considerable,” she says.

Tarasuk, Dobbyn, and MacDonald all say income support would help solve food insecurity. “Ontario Dietitians in Public Health advocates for basic income guarantees, jobs with livable wages and benefits, and adequate social-assistance rates because we know that's the best solution to addressing food insecurity,” says MacDonald.

Daniel Schultz, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services, says social-assistance reform is a part of Ontario’s new, five-year poverty-reduction strategy. Funding from programs such as the $510 million Social Services Relief Fund helps food banks, shelters, charities, non-profits and emergency services cope with related “growing demands and extraordinary circumstances.” More funding, through the Ontario Trillium Foundation, will provide grants to non-profits, including food banks, as will $8 million in direct funding to Feed Ontario so it can make and distribute food hampers via food banks across the province. “In the short term, it is about connecting people to opportunities and making life more affordable,” Schultz writes. “And in the long-term, the aim is to empower people so economic downturns are less likely to lead to poverty.”

In Chesley, Dean says they’ll carry on with the program as long as they have volunteers, support, and funding. Before COVID-19 arrived, “the need was hidden in the shadows, in my mind; it wasn’t really looked after, and this is how it evolved,” he says, adding it’s the same in every community, large or small. “And if people don’t step up and do it, it’s not going to happen.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​

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