A middle aged man and younger woman amdist boxes and shelves of food

The Cortes Food Bank at a Critical Crossroad

The Cortes Island Food Bank has met the rapidly expanding need for its services, but says it is time the local, provincial and federal governments stepped up to the plate. Only 110 food hampers were given out in 2022, but since August they have seen at least a threefold increase of demand every month. There were 86 clients in January and 70 in February. Prior to this, the highs for both months was 12. 

“We really knew that the numbers that we were seeing in previous years were not reflecting the level of poverty that exists here.  So we were doing some strategic things to try to increase people’s awareness of the food bank. That was a major reason  why our numbers went up so significantly.  People felt that they could come to us.  They knew it was a safe place to come for support. I think our clients are already dealing with so many challenges in their lives. I encourage anybody listening, if you  could use some help,  just come to us and we’ll get you some food,” explained Beatrix Baxter, one of the Food Bank’s Directors.  

Food Bank Coordinator and Director Filipe Figueira, added, “These are all people in our community who historically could get by and these days they just can’t.”

“We’ll keep applying for grants and  we feel a bit reluctant asking people for more money on the island because there’s a lot of people who are also struggling, also donating. If people  have  the ability to give more money it’s always welcome, but we do face this national issue and it is something that I think the SRD,  provincial government, federal government needs to look into funding more directly.” 

“I’ve written to our political representatives: the Regional Director, Michelle Babchuk and Rachel Blaney some months ago explaining the seriousness of the situation, with absolutely zero response. They need to get involved and start helping us because we cannot sustain this on a voluntary basis based on local people’s donations.”

Beatrix Baxter: “This issue is so massive. We need their support. We need to hear from them.”

Cortes Currents emailed North Island MLA Michele Babchuk’s office for comment, but at the time of this writing there’s been no response.  

Our local MP, Rachel Blaney has set up an interview with Figueira.  

Mark Vonesch, the Regional Director for Cortes Island responded, “The food bank provides a much needed service to a growing number of people on Cortes Island. One of the things that the SRD was able to do last year is that 20% of the Grant in Aid funds, a $5,000 grant, went to the Cortes Food Bank to help cover the costs of providing hampers  for local people.”

“There has been a request for more funding. The only funding that I have access to, as far as grants go, are through the Grants In Aid process. We’re going to be releasing a new Grants in Aid process application in the middle of April, with a May 1st deadline. So that’s another opportunity  for folks to apply, including the Cortes Food Bank.” 

“The food bank on Cortes, like food banks across the province and nationally, are  experiencing a surge in demand. This is a common Issue like housing, the issues on Cortes are not unique to our island.”

Beatric Baxter: “We are part of the Food Banks BC network. That was something that we became part of in 2021. Through our work with them we have seen that this is not  a local issue. This is very much affecting the entire province and certainly the whole country.” 

According to Food Banks BC, the need for food banks ‘has never been greater than it is today.’ They mentioned ’43,000 children in low-income families and 36,000 seniors,’ in particular.

The Cortes Food Bank gave a statistical analysis of their clientele in its 2023 Annual Report.

Filipe Figueira: “Over 30% are seniors. These are people who are on fixed incomes. They’ve probably worked for low wages most of their life. They haven’t been able to save for retirement. The benefits are dismal. Often these people have contributed significantly to our community, and now they’re in a position where they’re in poor housing or unaffordable housing, and they can’t afford to eat.” 

“Over 30% are families with children. Those people in situations where the costs are extraordinary to raise a kid these days. They’re really suffering and there’s a lot of people with disabilities as well.”

Figueira pointed his finger at governments, “This is caused by the economic policies that we’ve been pursuing over the last 10 to 15 years.”

This may be especially true of a segment of the population not identified in the food bank’s annual report. Close to a third of the respondents to Campbell River’s recent ‘Point In Time Count’ stated they have been homeless for less than a year. The percentage was lower in Comox ValleyParksville/QualicumPowell RiverSechelt/Gibsons, but higher in Port Alberni. The number one cause of homelessness reported in every one of these cities was insufficient income to pay for housing. Even more alarming, census reports show that thousands of people pay more than they can afford for housing and are in danger of slipping into homelessness.   

Filipe Figueira: “We have now multiple generations of young people who will never have housing and the costs to our society  is just massive. The costs to every aspect of our lives from health outcomes. to learning outcomes, to economic outcomes is just massive. There are so many issues. We get involved with the food bank. You can hear we’re passionate about the situation because it really exposes everything. And you’re absolutely right. A lot of our clients are not adequately housed.  They actually believe they are a lot of times.”

When the 2021 census was compiled, 75 of the island’s 560 occupied houses were in need of major repairs. Subsequent studies reported houses that lacked heat, indoor plumbing and/or water. 

In addition, the census may not be counting all the people who live vehicles, tents, sheds or cohabit buildings with up to five other people

Beatrix Baxter:  “It’s almost useless for us to do a survey at this point because surveys will target people who have a computer and have time on their hands. The conversation is not even fair.  It’s happening  behind closed doors for most of the people who are impacted by these issues. Every single person who’s in my social group is struggling with housing. I don’t know a single securely housed person.”  

“There’s all kinds of really illegal and oppressive dynamics between tenants and landlords, and it is such a struggle just to make rent.  A lot of the things that you might have been able to do here in previous generations because you had a piece of land, that’s just not available to people now because they don’t have land. You can barely even have a house now,  even a tiny house that you build yourself. Like, where are you going to put it? The lack of housing and the lack of dignified housing really is a huge contributor to food insecurity.”  

Filipe Figueira: “We’ve had clients who are basically economic migrants from other parts of the country who are living in their vehicles and cooking in the back of their car, and they think this is normal.  I think it’s also a federal responsibility here. They’re internal refugees. Funding needs to follow those people and support them, because they come to small communities like ours, all over Vancouver Island and the West Coast. Poorly funded organizations and communities like ours are not in a position to support them.” 

Up until this year, the Cortes Island Food Bank was a 100% volunteer run organization. Figueira now receives a wage.

Beatrix Baxter: “He’s been working as a volunteer doing basically a full time job. A big focus of ours is having a team of people who are working, making a living wage and having meaningful employment. It’s all really, really important work, so we want to compensate people fairly.”  

They hope to add two part-time positions when funding becomes available. 

Filipe Figueira: “We’ve been training some new staff and we’re very excited by their qualities and their caliber. It’s very important for us that they get training so they really understand the confidentiality issues, particularly on a small island. We take that part very seriously.”

Cortes Currents: Tell us about some of the partnerships the Food Bank has with other organizations on Cortes Island. 

Beatrix Baxter: “Our biggest partners are really the two community halls. The Whaletown Community Club (Gorge Hall) and the SCCA (Mansons Hall) have both really generously given us space so that we can pick up drop offs in a publicly accessible place. That’s been working as a stand in. We would really like at some point to have a purpose built food bank that’s private and safe for clients to be able to come, but for now we’re grateful to be partnered with the community halls.” 

Lane 8 has been doing deliveries for us. They’ve been so awesome, it’s really helped a lot because we will often need food in a pinch and they’ve been really generous with their time.” 

Filipe Figueira: “They give us some discounts at the end of the year which are fantastic.”

Beatrix Baxter: “We’re also working with Better at Home. It’s just been such a great  partnership and so much support both in trying to do joint grant fundraising and sharing services where we can.”

Filipe Figueira: “There’s some really good synergies on the island. We hope to build more.”

“A lot of our clients are children on the island and we’re particularly concerned with people going to school hungry, or being at school hungry. We’d like to work with Sunflower Food to create easy to prep lunches for kids who turn up at school and are hungry and maybe some kind of breakfast program.” 

“Given that we’ve got so many different projects we could do and we’ve only got so many limited hours, I think some of the new staff may be champions for some of those projects.”  

“I know that one of our new staff is very interested in growing food locally and there may be funds available through the Strathcona Food Hub to enable that.”

One of the challenges throughout the province, and particularly in rural areas like Cortes Island is a negative side of the community’s work ethic.

Filipe Figueira: “There’s a lot of judgment of people that suddenly can’t fend for themselves, as though it’s their fault. We’ve got this idea that, ‘oh, there’s work out there, and they’re not really picking up the work.’  That’s just not a reality, there is not enough work on Cortes.” 

“We are helping people who work seasonally on Cortes with some big companies. We basically subsidize the company by feeding those people who are lowly paid during the summer months.” 

“Then there’s also, ‘Oh, well, I’ve got a ditch that needs digging,’ or ‘I need some wood moving.’ Somebody can come and do that, but they’re not going to have a living wage.”

“We also have the historic idea that goes right back for as long as poverty has existed, that the poor are responsible for their situation. People always look down on people in poverty, but they never ever look up at the causes of poverty.” 

“What’s more shameful is large corporations in Canada not paying any tax for decades!”

Beatrix Baxter:  “There’s just a lot of harmful stereotypes out there, and they’re almost always untrue. We would hope that in conversations, people would really advocate for people’s dignity and right to food.”

“There are a lot of barriers for people to reach out and ask for help from the food bank. There’s a lot of internalized shame because of the shame in general of experiencing poverty.  People don’t feel like they deserve help and nobody has helped them before and in many other circumstances.”

“Taking that risk, especially in a small community when you know that you’re going to run into people who work for the food bank, is stressful. We do everything we can to try to make it a less stressful, positive experience.”

“Our goal is to just really help people have at least that one moment every two weeks where they can feel supported in the community, because it is brutal out there.” 

Links of Interest

Top image credit: Filipe Figueira and Beatrix Baxter at the Cortes Island Food Bank – Roy L Hales Photo

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