Food for Thought Blog

Community Collaboration Key to Navigating Pandemic

September 10th, 2020COVID-19

Wendi Campbell, CEO, The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, was recently invited to speak at Feed Ontario’s MPP Breakfast. The annual event featured food bank leaders from across Ontario speaking about the impact COVID-19 had in their communities.  

The key theme throughout the morning was looking at the different ways food banks adapted and changed to continue providing service throughout the pandemic and the ways we – food banks and elected officials – can continue working to address hunger and poverty in our communities.  

Wendi’s speech focused on the importance of working with municipalities, community collaboration, and pandemic emergency management. Essentially, how our community came together in innovative ways to make sure the most vulnerable population in Waterloo Region were cared for.  

Waterloo Region is home to the innovative, collaborative, and award-winning Community Food Assistance Network – a system of 100+ community programs and agency partners providing food and connection to other vital supports – emergency hampers, neighbourhood outreach programs, community meals, and shelter and residential services – needed by children, seniors, families and individuals throughout our community. 

The Food Bank is at the centre of this network and last year, we acquired, coordinated, and distributed more than 4.5 million pounds of food, supporting 34,552 people.  

Like our community, this network is built on a strong foundation of collaboration and partnership; ensuring no matter where you live in Waterloo Region, you have access to safe, healthy, nutritious food.  

Collaboration is Key

As they say, collaboration is key. And it played a critical role in providing essential services, safely during the pandemic.  

In early March, as COVID-19 reached Waterloo Region, and many businesses and organizations were forced to close, we were implementing the Community Food Assistance Network Pandemic Business Continuity Plan. This plan outlined how we would safely continue service delivery and prepare for the expected increase in need for food assistance.  

Just days after activating the Community Food Assistance Network Pandemic Business Continuity Plan, we collaborated with the Region of Waterloo Community Services and Region of Waterloo Public Health departments, taking the lead role of Food Support, making sure services continued to be offered in our community.  

We worked with community programs and agency partners to distribute meals to shelter, residential, supportive housing and outreach programs, that lost the capacity to operate their kitchens, secure valuable volunteer resources or host congregate meals.  

We packed perishable and non-perishable food hampers with a mighty team of staff and volunteers for distribution in the parking lots of our closed community facilities. 

We shifted the workload to our largest food hamper provides, closed smaller ones, consolidated available resources, and increased service delivery. We helped flatten the curve.  

We established a central referral line for citizens in need of food assistance, who needed to be pre-screened for referrals and deliveries, for case and outreach workers navigating the complexities of their clients lives, and we provided a kind voice to ease the stress and anxiety that so many were feeling.  

We also advocated and educated our government partners about the need for, what seemed like the simplest things – access to public washrooms, fresh drinking water, and to information and support – to help the most vulnerable in our community navigate the new normal 

Working with the Region of Waterloo Community Services and Region of Waterloo Public Health departments gave us – at The Food Bank – peace of mind as we entered the unknown.  

 As a leader of the Community Food Assistance Network, we were at the table when the regional pandemic plan was developed, we recommended essential linkages to non-government community supports, identified roles and responsibilities, and created a flexible framework for action. Had we not done that – if we had not collaborated with our municipality – our pandemic experience would have been drastically different. 

This work happened with the support and endorsement of the Region of Waterloo Community Services team. It is because of their leadership, partnership, and support that our community came together.  

As of today, our community has not had a single case of COVID-19 in our shelter system, or homeless population, there has been no disruption in service delivery, and we have acquired, coordinated, and distributed close to 2 million pounds of food since March 17. 

Inequalities Show Critical Work Still Needed

Despite innovative approaches, collaboration, and partnerships, there is more critical work to be done.  

Throughout this experience, glaring gaps in service and inequalities in our community, specifically connected to inadequate housing were exposed. Our homeless population continues to grow, and our existing system is not equipped to handle that growth long-term.  

A roof over your head provides safety, security – it provides an address that will help someone receive the full spectrum of support and services available to citizens in our community – and in our province. 

Our community partners created a temporary system of housing that offered health care access, three solid healthy meals a day, and a sense of safety, security and support. We’ve heard stories of thanks, and of improved health, but we are also hearing fear of what is to come. 

We need to stop creating band aid solutions. We need to stop cutting corners because of limited resources. We need wrap around supports to provide health care, counselling and other resources to those struggling with mental health, addiction, homelessness and food security. We need the confidence that there will be funding to support what needs to be done.   

As a food bank – we have the ability and the resources to put the healthy meal on the table – but that is just the first step in so many complicated lives – we need to do more.  

If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that hunger can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Think back to the early days, the urgency and panic you felt about stocking your shelves and pantries. Now imagine, how that felt for the most vulnerable in our community.  

In Waterloo Region the cost of food for a single person is $292 a month – on a social assistance benefit of $825 after paying an average rent of $796 (some of the highest in our province) – stretching $29 at a grocery store for a month is nearly impossible.  Last year 57% of people who access food assistance were also receiving social assistance.   

Food Banks are an essential part of the social safety net. We will continue to operate and exist as long as citizens continue to get trapped in social systems that lead to lower paying jobs, no benefits, incomes that barely covers rent and leaves them in a position to make the impossible choice of rent or food. 

How do we create a sense of dignity – how do we look at abilities and create opportunity when the system continues to throw up barriers that limit income, and access to benefits. How do community programs with limited funding create new programs to help break the cycle and help people heal and move on? 

As we move forward, we need make sure we don’t lose the momentum and lessons we learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to focus on not only building back better, but helping organizations provide the best support and resources to help people move forward.   

Learn more about Feed Ontario’s policy recommendations to build a better Ontario.