WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Volunteers and Sisters of Providence ready themselves to choose foodstuffs for the inner city needy.
Outside of the Anawim Place food bank, men and women lined up to collect their food hampers. With the temperature dipping below –20C, they shivered, hunching their bodies against the wintry cold.
At 10 a.m. the doors opened. Once inside, clients took a number and waited. Among them was Douglas James, who underwent two hip replacements and currently has a broken arm, making manual work next to impossible.
“I’ve been on medical assistance on and off for the past 20 years. I’ve had some medical problems,” said James.
When his number was called, James went for a short interview, where he told a volunteer his food needs. Compared to the city’s other food depots, this is a unique quality of Anawim Place, the fact that the clients get to choose their specific food items.
James has noticed the high prices at supermarkets, so he must shop frugally. In that regard, the food depot provides some foodstuffs he could not otherwise afford.
“You know what they say, you can either afford rent or you can afford food, but it’s hard to afford both, especially at today’s prices,” he said. “It seems that the price of food goes up, but the income that I receive doesn’t.”
The Sisters of Providence run the inner-city food bank, which is open every Wednesday and Friday morning. About six or eight volunteers are there during its hours of operation.
“This place is extremely necessary, otherwise a lot of people would go hungry,” said James.
Under their sponsorship, Anawim Place opened its doors in November 1988 as an emergency resource for those in need.
“Anawim is used by many people in the inner city who are low income, people who are out of work,” said Betty Farrell, a longtime volunteer. “Right now I’ve noticed we’re getting the people who were on Employment Insurance, but it’s gone now and they can’t find a job.
“There are people who have never been to a food bank before, but they’re having to come.”
Anawim is an acronym for A Necessary Alternative Welcomed In Mercy. It is also a Hebrew word meaning, God’s poor. The philosophy at Anawim Place is one of compassionate love for the disadvantaged. Service to others is rooted in this compassionate love.
In January, the food depot provided 394 hampers, feeding 385 families, 167 children, and seven infants. Most clients do not own cars, so a typical hamper amounts to a few groceries that an individual can carry home. The food lasts a family of four a couple of days.
“The demand for food is huge now. I first started in 1992, and it’s an entirely different process in terms of numbers. But it’s also much better in terms of what we have to offer,” said Farrell.
In the early 1990s, food variety was limited. Now clients can choose from cereals, pasta, canned goods, peanut butter, coffee, margarine, powdered milk, cheese and other foods.
“Four years ago we never had eggs to give to people. Last year the Edmonton Food Bank was looking at the protein content, and decided to spend some money on eggs. Before, peanut butter and beans were about the best protein we had for them,” said Farrell.
Sister Helene Mamert, a Sister of Providence from Cameroon, enjoys preparing the hampers in the backroom. She loves working with the poor and working with her hands. The young sister was shocked by Edmonton’s high rate of poverty, homelessness and hungry families.
“I am very surprised by the number of poor people because at home, when I hear of Canada, I think of a nice wealthy country. But from my experience there are a lot of poor people here,” said Mamert.
Sister Estela Andaya took over as the coordinator of Anawim Place last April. The camaraderie and teamwork with the volunteers make it an enjoyable place to work. Meeting the clients and hearing their stories also makes the work fulfilling.
“Our clients give us comments that they like to come here,” said Andaya. “Sometimes the mothers will bring their babies in their strollers, and a lot of us spend time greeting the child, make them smile, give them toys.”
People come to Anawim Place for many reasons. Some people collect AISH, social assistance or a pension, perhaps doing casual work only. Clients can pick up a food hamper once a month. There are safeguards in place, so an individual cannot go to five or six food banks in a day.
When Lorraine Skelly arrives at Anawim Place on Wednesday mornings, she puts out items that people have donated, such as clothing, shoes, toys, books and magazines.
“It is making a difference in my life, and we know we’re making a difference in theirs because they tell us, and 99.9 per cent of them are very gracious, very thankful,” said Skelly.
During her five years volunteering there, she has noticed a marked increase in the demand for food.
“It increases with the economy, job loss. We have a number of people coming here who are the working poor. They work, but they don’t earn enough to pay rent and buy food for themselves and their kids, so we help them,” she said.
Olli Bagshaw, who started volunteering there 12 years ago, concurred that the need for food has skyrocketed.
“There is far more demand. What’s difficult is when you see so many young children, and it hurts to see them being brought up that this is where they get their food,” said Bagshaw.
She enjoys meeting the clients when they enter and she hears their stories.
“So many of them look after each other, but at the same time they’ll come in and say they were beat up or their wallet was stolen, and this happens quite frequently too,” said Bagshaw.
The bulk of the food is supplied by the Edmonton Food Bank. Farmers bring in fresh vegetables. Fresh Start Bakery in Riverbend Square donates a truck full of bread every Monday. Major contributors among parishes are St. Thomas d’Aquin, St. Patrick’s and Sacred Heart.