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Is there a Stigma to using the food bank?

'There's a stigma attached' to using food banks. This longtime food-bank user wants to help change that “Jane Doe” (name changed to protect her identity) says when most people look at her they're shocked she needs help with groceries. She is a food bank client who has been using the food bank's services for the past nine years. When she first went to the food bank nine years ago it was daunting. She walked in unsure what to expect, keeping her head down as she waited in line.

"It's like a reality check when you're standing there. You say to yourself how did I end up here? Because there's a stigma attached."

This Tillsonburg resident quickly realized she wasn't alone. There were women, children, men, seniors — all kinds of people who needed help just as she did.

Her husband passed away in 2010 while she was still in school. She says she was in a dark place and had never heard of the food bank until a classmate told her to try it out. Little did she know, that scary experience would change her life – having access to the food bank enabled her to stay afloat through tough times.

"It's like either pay the rent or eat. You have a fixed income. There are your lights, there's your phone. It's taking up everything and you don't even have money for groceries."

Jane Doe is what you may describe as "put together." She's dressed sharply, with her long brown hair flowing down her back and a dab of red lipstick. When most people think of a food bank user, it's unlikely she's the first image that comes to mind. That's precisely why she's sharing her story, hoping it will help to reduce the stigma associated with the food bank.

"People think that it's all just homeless people or drug addicts or people with mental health issues and it's not like that at all."

Jane Doe wants to help break the stigma associated with using food banks, noting it can be difficult to pay for groceries and still afford other costs of living in Tillsonburg.

With the cost of living going up in Tillsonburg there's been a 34 per cent increase in the number of food bank users since last year, and the Helping Hand Food Bank has seen a drastic change in the type of person coming in for help. We have more single people, more men and more seniors coming to us than we do just single moms with kids or families.

"It's a big step for someone to go to a food bank – a bit of embarrassment. We need to realize that at the Helping Hand Food Bank we are trying to do all we can to provide not only food to feed your tummies but hope for something better and so there shouldn't be a stigma to asking for help.

For starters, we no longer have people who have food insecurity stand in long lines with others waiting to see if they can get food. We provide everything by way of an appointment. This way it is making sure that you have some dignity in asking for help. You are not seen as in a “cattle call” line up. We want to meet you one on one at your needs.

At your appointment, you meet one on one with an Intake Volunteer who is kind and caring and will help you in determining what you need. From the Intake Volunteer who produces a list to give to a Shopping Volunteer, the person with food insecurity is now considered a client and will be given food to take home. 'We’re no longer handing out bags of Kraft dinner or powdered milk,' says Dianne Clark, Coordinator of the Helping Hand Food Bank. 'We’ve really put a big emphasis on fresh produce, fresh perishable items.' From the time a client arrives at the food bank to going home is 15 minutes. Not a long time but in that short space of time, they are given so much.

Clark says along with trying to shake the stigma and stereotypes, the organization is also trying to make drastic changes in its food selection. Gone are the days of someone cleaning out their pantry and donating a nearly-expired can of beans. Now, when you walk through the food bank's brand new Tillsonburg facility, it looks more like a Costco with freezers and fridges stocked with fresh fruit and other healthy options. "We've really upped our game in the last few years. Now we give out milk, eggs, bread, apples, potatoes, carrots and 3 choices of frozen meat. They have really healthy things," says Jane Doe as she pulls the items out of her own fridge at home. BUT they also have an area called the "Caring Cupboard" where we get to pick extras and Jane Does says she loves that because there are food items on the shelf that she could never afford to get but now has the chance to see if she likes it or not.

The Helping Hand Food Bank Bank distributes close to 8,000 pounds of food every week to people in need. Much of it is donated but much of it is also purchased, spending $10,000 on goods each month.


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