The miracle of the cereal box

Food bank struggles to acquire food that people are willing to eat



The men and women who shuffle into a modest, flat-roofed yellow building near the Legion every second Saturday are poor, hungry and craving breakfast cereal.

That craving is a big problem for the people who run the food bank, which shares the building with Iqaluit’s soup kitchen.

A 452-gram box of cereal costs as much as $10 at Northmart or Arctic Ventures, far beyond the resources of the working poor, and so expensive that even bulk purchases put a big dent in the food bank’s annual budget.

But breakfast cereal is so much in demand that food bank volunteers make extraordinary efforts to get their hands on as much of it as they can beg or buy. It’s never enough.

“We could probably purchase twice as much canned protein – tuna or meat – for the same amount of money we spend on boxed cereal,” says Jen Hayward, the food bank’s secretary.

Hard-headed economists might argue forcefully that every dollar and ounce of effort should be made to yield as much nutrition as possible when it comes to feeding the poor, but thankfully, hard-headed economists don’t run food banks.

Hayward and her band of volunteers know that it’s important to provide food that people actually want to eat. They also know that some of Iqaluit’s poorest people have no stoves, refrigerators or other facilities to prepare meals and that the easier they make it for people to eat, the more likely it is that bellies will actually get filled.

“One box of cereal can make a meal for a family of four or five people,” says Hayward.

It is, moreover, every bit as popular with adults as it is with kids. “We get single people all the time requesting cereal,” she says.

Much easier to provide are three of the four ingredients of bannock – flour, baking powder and salt. What stumps food bank volunteers is scrounging or buying the all-important fourth ingredient – lard or shortening. That costs $5 or more a pound, and there is never, ever enough to go around.

The food bank, however, has beans and lentils in abundance. The problem is, almost no one wants them. They’re an excellent source of protein, dietary fibre, folic acid and other good things, but not many people know how to make them into tasty dishes, or if they do, they don’t have a kitchen to cook in.

Hayward thinks it would be a great idea to have a nutritionist or other qualified person to prepare recipes for healthy meals, which might encourage people to eat more beans and lentils. But that is far beyond the meagre resources of the food bank.

Every year food bank volunteers spend about $35,000 – all donated funds – to purchase food that is delivered on the sealift. Local merchants, including Northmart and Arctic Ventures, regularly provide surplus food.

And people in the community also provide canned goods and other packaged food, particularly before Christmas, when food bank volunteers put extra efforts into attracting donations, because demand is greatest around the holiday season and in January.

Last year, the food bank provided food to more than 5,800 people from almost 1,500 households. About half the households are single parent families, and about a fifth of the people are single.

If you want to know what the hunting is like near Iqaluit in the winter, just ask at the food bank. Last winter, for instance, there weren’t many caribou close to the city, so it was a busy season for the people who give away food.

During the summer, when people can fish or otherwise go out and live off the land, the food bank is far less busy. Even so, from year to year, demand keeps growing – sometimes by as much as 50 per cent.

Like the people who rely on it, the food bank itself has a history of hard luck. In 2003, just before Christmas, thieves broke into the food bank building, helped themselves to food and drinks, and then sprayed juice all over the walls and onto computer equipment, ruining a computer keyboard.

But that was minor compared to the disaster of 2004, when a sprinkler system flooded the building that the food bank and soup kitchen was in at the time.

Still, for every setback there seems to be a reason for hope. One woman, who prefers to remain nameless, makes a point of donating $1,000 to $2,000 every year to the food bank, because, she says, she is grateful for the help she received years ago at a food bank in another community.

And despite the rising numbers of people who come to the food bank every year, Hayward says she occasionally runs into someone whom she hasn’t seen for a while. “I”ll ask them why they haven’t been in, and they’ll tell me they’re working and doing all right.”

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