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HELPERS: Nourishing those in need with the Georgian Bay Food Network

Paul Stack has volunteered with the storefront-style food bank since it opened in December, and he’s been busy

Paul Stack never thought he would see the similarities in volunteering for the Georgian Bay Food Network, and his 30-plus year career at the Beer Store.

Working in retail gives you a certain perspective on what people need.

Stack started volunteering at the storefront-style food bank a week after the Midland-based organization opened its doors on December 1st.

“We’ve been busy ever since,” says Stack. 

When the pandemic hit, and Stack was still working at the Beer Store, he says the increase in business was like “a light switch flipping” the change happened so fast.

“It maintained right through,” says Stack, who recently retired, “it was almost like every day was a weekend day.”

That level of demand is consistent with what Stack sees in his volunteer work at the Georgian Bay Food Network (GBFN).

“Over the pandemic with people’s income becoming erratic, whether their income is subsidized through government programs or not, it’s caused more people to require places like food banks to get by,” says Stack.

In the first year of the pandemic, more than half a million adults and children accessed a food bank in Ontario, constituting the largest single-year increase in over a decade, according to a 2021 Feed Ontario report.

With over 17 percent of Ontarians working part-time, and that part-time work being unreliable through the pandemic, essential services like food banks have been busier than ever.

In Hunger Count 2021, Food Banks Canada reports that 1 in 8 people accessing a food bank are employed.

Feed Ontario’s Hunger Report notes a 44 percent increase in the number of people with employment accessing food banks for support in the four years leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in massive layoffs and work stoppages for people in retail, food service and even seasonal work, the need for food banks has increased.

“I certainly noticed it getting busier as the weeks went on,” says Stacks. “Not only did it have to do with the fact that it was Christmas-time, but also awareness of the food bank was increasing.”

Winter is historically a busier time for food banks because many people requiring the extra support are often seasonal labourers, who are not working this time of year.

Stack says that some customers at GBFN love the fact that they can walk through and select what they need.

Providing people struggling with food insecurity with a service that maintains their dignity is central to the creation of the storefront-style food bank.

That’s what makes volunteering there so worthwhile for Stack.

“It’s certainly a good feeling to know that you’re providing a good service and Alex is awesome to work for,” he says referring to Alexandria Hamelin, the executive director at the GBFN.

The idea for the Georgian Bay Food Network came to Hamelin when she saw people she knows struggling.

“It started as a family discussion,” says Hamelin. “The idea was to create a stigma-free environment, and serve people struggling with food insecurity with dignity.

“With the loss of jobs due to COVID-19, and the rising cost of living, it became increasingly clear that this was really needed for our community. At that point, the idea of a grocery-store-style food bank became a plan and I started working towards getting the non-profit registered.”

Hamelin comes to this work from a pure perspective of service to community.

“I’m a people-oriented person,” she says. “My family is very community-focused.”

With that in mind, Hamelin and the handful of volunteers that help keep the shelves stocked and the doors open, have empowered the larger community in need.

The GBFN serves over 440 individuals by providing food that is intended to last two weeks. The food bank operates on a points system, where each family or person is provided enough points to spend in the store, and those points are allotted in an amount that should sustain a person for two weeks.

While one point is equal to $1, all the fresh produce is 0 points — meaning it’s free — because offering healthy food choices is vital. GBFN receives apples, bananas, peppers, potatoes and lettuce regularly.

“We have had hundreds of pounds of food donated already,” says Hamelin. “On an average day, we see anywhere from 15 to 20 families. On a busy day we see anywhere between 20 and 40 families.”

The work that goes into ensuring there is food on the shelves is non-stop for Hamelin and her team of helping hands.

One thing that surprised Stack when he started volunteering at the food bank was the need for things that the average person takes for granted.

“People bring in canned goods, and that’s great. But, do the people that need canned goods have a can opener?” asks Stack.

He says he hadn’t considered how important it is to think of how people are housed, and whether they have access to a stove top, or if they have storage containers for extra food.

“Someone donated socks, and they were gone as quickly as they were stocked,” says Stack.

Many people that live with food insecurity may also be struggling with stable housing and more. That makes personal-care items like soap incredibly important.

Stack says he realized soon after he started volunteering at GBFN that it was a good fit.

“The biggest incentive, if you have the time, is the satisfying feeling knowing that you’re helping people,” says Stack. “Here, we’re part of a team that’s making people’s lives a little bit easier.”

With so many in need, the GBFN is always looking for more volunteers.

If you’re interested in volunteering, you can apply here. If you’re interested in donating, learn more about how best to donate here.

The Georgian Bay Food Network is located at 230 Aberdeen Blvd Unit 1 & 2 in Midland. The store is open Monday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.