Cape Breton community pantries struggle to stay stocked amid growing demand, fewer donations

Community pantries in Cape Breton that offer free food and other goods are struggling to keep their shelves stocked as the rising cost of groceries leads to a greater demand for the service and fewer donations from Good Samaritans.

“The panties are getting cleared out a lot,” said Jodi McDavid, executive director of Cape Breton Transition House, a shelter in Sydney for women and children.

“There’s probably a lot more people accessing them … but on the other hand, I think a lot of people who used to buy extra groceries and support them are no longer able to do that either.”

McDavid is part of the Northend Sydney Food Pantry Group on Facebook, which is dedicated to keeping two of the pantries in the north end of Sydney as full as possible.

With more than 500 members, the group is full of posts from volunteers and organizations letting each other know when the cupboards are bare, which seems to be more often than not in recent months.

“I put stuff in … one on Friday, but there were five people there for food so the stuff didn’t last long,” wrote one member on June 26. “The fridge was empty and there was only a package of pasta and two cans of some kind of beans.”

Statistics Canada said the price of food — everything from fresh vegetables to meat to cooking oil — jumped 9.7 per cent in May compared to the previous year. That matches the rise in April.

A survey released last month by Food Banks Canada found almost a quarter of Canadians reported eating less than they should because of affordability issues.

Waiting for food

Megan Henderson, a nutrition student at Mount Saint Vincent University, is interning at the Better Bite Café and community kitchen. The café, which is located in New Dawn Enterprises, often fills the pantry and community fridge located on site.

On several occasions, Henderson has found people waiting outside for the pantry and fridge to be stocked.

“It’s really sad or unfortunate to know that they’re here waiting for people to deliver food, and that’s crazy to me because we fill it every single day and it’s gone every single day,” she said.

“That sort of speaks to how often it’s used … and how much it’s needed.”

Megan Henderson and Hanna Oravecz standing next to the fridge and pantry at New Dawn Enterprises, a community development corporation in Sydney. They are nutrition students interning at the Better Bite Café and community kitchen, and say there is a big need for food in the area. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Last Friday evening, Ann Marie Wells was one of the people waiting at the nearby picnic table for Henderson to come out with leftover sandwiches, wraps, cookies, and other goods that were being distributed for free.

“You go in the store with a $20 bill and you’re coming out with a few things and you’ve got nothing,” Wells said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Wells said it was her first time visiting the site. She’s been looking for alternatives to Feed Nova Scotia’s food box delivery program, which is due to end next month.

The program launched during the pandemic to help people who were stuck at home and couldn’t get to a food bank. But last month, Feed Nova Scotia said the program, which cost $2.1 million a year, was no longer sustainable.

“You cannot solve the food insecurity business through food charities. It just can’t be done,” Nick Jennery, Feed Nova Scotia’s executive director, said at the time.

The non-profit has said it will provide additional food and funds to agencies in high-need areas to help fill the gap left by the program.

Anonymity key

Although there are several food banks in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, volunteer Jay Duguid said the community pantries play an important role in the community.

“Food banks give out weekly or biweekly, so people are in between,” said Duguid, who is also a member of the Facebook group monitoring the pantries and helps organize food drives.

Besides bridging the gap between when people get food, the pantries are anonymous, which Duguid said is appealing for many people.

“People forget about the working poor, people working on minimum wage that are just struggling to pay rent and oil… they’re very proud, and the anonymity is the best part of the program.”

Duguid said he is seeing more minimum wage workers accessing the pantries and food drives as well as international students struggling to find work and pay rent.

Jay Duguid volunteers to help fill two of the community-based pantries in the north end of Sydney. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Duguid often purchases items for the pantries himself, but he said he’s had to cut back due to the price of groceries.

“I haven’t had the resources to do as much as I’d like to do,” said Duguid.

Premier Tim Houston said last month that his government was looking at ways to help people struggling with the rising cost of living, but has not yet announced any additional aid.

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