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Fire in belly: Feed Nova Scotia volunteer fuelled by need to correct injustice

Pam Collier would like you to buy an extra can of pasta sauce the next time you’re out grocery shopping. That’s if you can afford it.
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Pam Collier, centre, helps sort through some of the food at the Feed Nova Scotia warehouse on Friday. Collier has been volunteering at the food bank for nearly six years. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)

Pam Collier would like you to buy an extra can of pasta sauce the next time you’re out grocery shopping.

That’s if you can afford it.  Any non-perishable food item will do; but whatever it is, drop it in the food bank collection box before you head out the door.

For the past five and a half years, she’s been volunteering to keep track of Feed Nova Scotia’s inventory. The Shad Bay resident gets a first-hand glimpse of the momentous challenge that this not-for-profit organization faces: providing food for 44,000 hungry Nova Scotians.

Yes, it’s an inconceivable number, a statistic that grew by 21 per cent between 2015 and 2016.

What difference could a can of soup make?

“I think we tend to feel like we’re powerless to reduce food insecurity in this province, and we fail to realize we can do a lot by just doing what we can,” said Collier. “Just putting a couple of cans of soup in the bin at the grocery store, that represents a meal for a family.

“It could be the difference between having food and not. It may bring a family one step closer to not needing it, because that support, that nourishment, may be what a parent might need to go out that day and find a job.”

Collier is among hundreds of people who volunteer at Feed Nova Scotia throughout the year. She’s always available to fill a vacancy, whether it’s sorting donations or volunteering at fundraising events.

Without people such as Collier, food donations would not be sorted and packed, and orders would not leave the warehouse or be trucked out to the 146 food banks, shelters and meal programs that depend on Feed Nova Scotia year-round.  

They ensure 16,000 pounds (7,257 kilograms) of food gets delivered every day. But this equates to less than three days’ worth of food per client per month, according to Nick Jennery, the group’s executive director.

Volunteers like Collier keep the engine running in the face of a daunting reality. Hunger Count 2016, a study tracking food bank usage in Canada, shows one in 21 Nova Scotians is registered with food banks. One in five children (that’s 37,450 children) lives in poverty, according to the 2016 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia. The report also shows the average family on income assistance in Nova Scotia lives about $800 a month below the poverty line.

Collier agrees with many of the report’s recommendations, such as a government poverty reduction plan that includes targets and deadlines, access to affordable housing, more money for people on social assistance, a livable minimum wage and a child-care program that helps families living in poverty get ahead.

But Collier is also driven by her own philosophy that no person should go hungry in a province and country of abundance like ours.

“It’s not a single problem. There’s not one person to blame. The fix is multi-disciplinary. It involves government, it involves the generosity of ordinary people who can give, it involves businesses. It involves organizations like this.

“It makes me very angry that in this province, in this country, that people are hungry because I see the abundance, I see the waste. I go out to restaurants and see the massive amounts of food we get to enjoy. You go to a wedding and food is everywhere. There’s always way more than what’s required and I wonder about where it goes. I look at the child poverty rate. I work downtown and I see people who are lined up at soup kitchens, lined up at Metro Turning Point, and it makes me angry.”

Leading up to last month’s provincial election, the Liberal government unveiled a four-year, $80-million plan to address poverty. It contains two objectives: “improving assistance rates; and help more Nova Scotians to enter the workforce.”

Beyond promising an increase in income assistance rates, the plan also includes a new standard household rate. No details were provided about when the rate would be introduced and how it will benefit low-income residents, nor were details offered on when and by how much income assistance rates would be raised.

The plan also includes a $20-million initiative that “addresses skills development” and the identification of barriers that keep many Nova Scotians unemployed. The plan does not set specific targets, however, or offer details about programs that will be offered.

Despite several attempts by Local Xpress to reach her, Community Services Minister Kelly Regan has been unavailable for comment since taking over the portfolio June 15.

Community Services spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn was unable to offer details on the proposed new rates or new programs and services that will be offered to low-income earners. More information would be made available soon, she said.

Still, Karen Theriault, director of development and communications at Feed Nova Scotia, says she’s optimistic that the province will provide a comprehensive poverty reduction plan that offers a livable income for social assistance recipients.

“We identify this as the area that we can have the greatest impact,” said Theriault. “If (the new plan) can provide the necessary income and support for individuals and households, it can reduce the need for food banks.”

Regardless of what the plan ultimately looks like, Collier will keep volunteering.

“If I didn’t have hope, I wouldn’t be doing this,” said Collier. “This place, the people who volunteer and work here, give me hope. The generosity of people and businesses gives me hope.

“Sometimes if you’re focused on your little world, you lose perspective on what’s real, what’s important. This place feeds my soul.”



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