Let No One Go Hungry

Lisa Sandham - Bayview Magazine Holiday 2010

'Let no one go hungry in our midst' is a mission the Regional Food Distribution Association of Northwestern Ontario (RFDA) established when the non-profit corporation was formed in 2003. The creation of the RFDA was to form one centralized location to manage the delivery and distribution of donated food and to address the fundamental issues of poverty affecting our region. Operating as ‘the food bank for food banks’, the RFDA distributes food to their 28 food distribution agencies located within the City of Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario.

According to the 2009 Ontario Hunger Report published by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB), 375,000 Ontarians are turning to food banks each month with Thunder Bay leading 120 communities. Currently RFDA member agencies provide 19,000 meals and serve over 7,400 people each month who need a hamper. In the hamper program, 46 percent of those assisted are children. Why are the needs so great within our region? According to recent statistics, the RFDA cites three contributing factors: long-term unemployment, in-migration and low per capita income levels in comparison to other communities within Ontario.

The RFDA's current facility is located at 704 McKenzie Street and for the last four years it has served our community and region within its limited capacity. Originally donated by the Indian Friendship Centre, it took only two years for the RFDA to realize that the 3600 square foot facility would not be capable of meeting future needs and goals. Without an accessible warehouse, 23 volunteers were required to unload delivery trucks by hand. The limitation of space also did not allow for the offering of skill development programs similar to those offered by food bank hubs in Southern Ontario, Winnipeg and Regina. Two years ago the RFDA approached the local architectural firm of Kuch Stephenson Gibson Malo Architects & Engineer (KSGM) to assist in determining whether expansion at their existing location was feasible. After consultations with neighbouring residential property owners, it was determined that the expansion was prohibitive. Together with the City of Thunder Bay a search for a new location began.

In the early stages of their search for a new facility the RFDA approached the Paterson Foundation and after a lengthy review of their organization and a potential site, the Paterson Foundation made a commitment of $200,000 over four years. Donald Paterson, President of the Paterson Foundation explains why he feels this project should be considered a number one priority within our community, "The RFDA is volunteer driven and serves not only the community of Thunder Bay but also many regional food bank organizations. The RFDA is in place to serve the people who need help the most and the RFDA does it with respect for the dignity of those whom they serve. Everyone who comes through their doors or benefits from one of their services is given a hand up, not a hand out. The difference is of great importance."

The initial donation by the Paterson Foundation encouraged both municipal and federal governments as well as local organizations to contribute significant dollars to the project. In 2009, the City of Thunder Bay committed $330,000 of their 2010 budget and Greg Rickford MP for Kenora announced $518,000 in support through the Canadian Community Adjustment Funds via Industry Canada. The Fort William Rotary also supported the RFDA’s cause with a $45,000 commitment of $15,000 for the next three years. Additional donations were made by the neighbouring communities of Greenstone, Marathon, Dryden, Nipigon, Neebing and O’Connor.

After a year long search, the RFDA took possession of their new 15,000 square foot facility at 570 Syndicate Avenue in March 2010. As architect Walter Kuch explains, “The current site on Syndicate Avenue was a former grocery store and was selected for the new home of the RFDA as it met their needs for food storage, had sufficient land available for receiving transport trucks, was located in a commercial zone and is compatible with neighbouring properties. The building was also in reasonable condition and thus the cost of the renovation and the purchase price of the property was within their available funding. The architectural concept for the building is to re-use as much of the existing materials and services as possible. The work was staged to allow for volunteers to complete the demolition of various components and to prepare the building for the general contractor. All new work was designed to upgrade the building envelope to very high energy efficient standards to ensure that the ongoing operations costs were minimized.”

During the last year, a team of 30 volunteers have worked diligently to complete interior demolition saving the RFDA an astounding $45,000. Larry Brigham is quick to recognize their volunteers and their unwavering commitment to the RFDA. “Food banks respond without judgment to meet the very basic needs of those requesting help. Food banks have many to thank. The donors and food bank volunteers make what we do possible. They give more than food. They give hope and a message that someone cares.”

The new Paterson Family Food Centre will not only be a food distribution centre but an incubator kitchen, micro-processing facility and training facility with skill development programs being established for those seeking training and business startup within the food industry.

RFDA Coordinator Volker Kromm shares the RFDA’s vision. “The vision is more than just feeding the hungry. This project is being undertaken to change the circumstances of individuals at a fundamental food security level, and to stimulate the enormous economic diversification potential of both local growers and food collectors within the northwest region. A portion of the 28,000 kg of food that is deemed as waste by the grocers in Thunder Bay annually can now be channeled to feed the hungry through micro-processing, as it nears the end of its life.” He cautions that despite the appearances of an improving economy, usage of food banks continues to rise significantly each year. The implementation of skill development programs and the empowerment of individuals are vital. “We need to be proactive about giving people opportunities to re-train, develop new skills, and possibly launch new businesses.”

Since 2008, the closure of over ten major food processors and manufacturers has meant a reduction in supply of one million pounds of food to Ontario’s food banks. In response, the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) established the Community Harvest Ontario program. Each year the OAFB estimates that 25 million pounds of fruits and vegetables are disposed of or tilled back into the soil in Ontario. In 2010, Thunder Bay was among one of five communities to participate in the launch. By building relationships with local farmers to obtain produce that is considered market ‘seconds’, Community Harvest Ontario estimates they have acquired and distributed over 500,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and they anticipate that number will increase to two million in 2011.

With the RFDA’s installation of a commercial kitchen, increased refrigeration and storage facilities will allow for micro-processing and packaging of food that would otherwise be discarded.

The opening of the Paterson Family Food Centre in February 2011 will stand as a testament to what can be achieved when communities, leaders and volunteers come together to affect positive change. To those who depend upon our local food banks, the new facility will be a beacon of hope, a place of empowerment and the embodiment of the RFDA’s hard work and dedication.

Lisa Sandham is an interior designer, home designer and freelance writer. She can be contacted at info(at)lisasandham(dot)com

For more information

The Paterson Foundation

The Regional Food Distribution Association of Northwestern Ontario

Ontario Association of Food Banks