The many faces of hunger

By Leslie Campbell, July 2011

Who’s next in line at the food bank?

Somehow it feels a little ridiculous stocking up on food at an overflowing Market on Yates on my way home from an interview at the Mustard Seed Food Bank. Not an hour earlier, on this glorious summer day, Brent Palmer, director of the Mustard Seed Food Bank, informed me there are thousands of people in Victoria who cannot afford any food, let alone the pricey, nutritious items I am buying with barely a blink.

Palmer, who began his adventures at Mustard Seed as a volunteer in 1984, says the central Victoria food bank is now servicing 7000-plus a month. In 2008 it was more like 5000 per month. He says, “I am expecting the months of July and August to be even higher. One of the reasons is children don’t have access to breakfast and lunch programs in the summer, so that always puts more of a strain on our food bank resources.”

The other reason Palmer expects food bank use to increase is what he calls “a shift in demographics.” From his office in the Queens Avenue building, he can see the people who come to Mustard Seed, and he is noticing “more seniors coming in and calling in to see what they have to do to access food.” He is also hearing from home support workers and senior’s organizations that some older people are going hungry. 

“It’s very concerning,” says Palmer, though perhaps not surprising. Seniors are often on fixed incomes and the price of food has been steadily increasing—along with many other daily necessities. This spring the TD Bank warned Canadians to expect food prices to rise by 7 to 8 percent over the next 9 to 12 months. (Globally food prices have increased by 40 percent in the past year.)

Palmer is especially worried about seniors who have mobility challenges and is beginning to work with his small staff and board to develop strategies for reaching them. Meanwhile he urges us all to watch out for our senior neighbours.

Though rising numbers of unemployed and welfare recipients mean more people turning to the food bank, employed workers are showing up more often as well. One of Palmer’s co-workers, Fran Kitson, a 28-year veteran of Mustard Seed, puts a human face on the situation by telling me of a young couple who rely on the food bank. One parent works full-time and the other part-time, both at local big-box outlets. They have three children, two of them in school and the other in daycare. When Kitson asked the young mom if it made sense to work at a low-paying job and incur daycare fees, she explained that the $100 she netted after daycare was the family’s only money for food. So it was critical she work, but also necessary to visit the food bank regularly. Summer will exacerbate her food and childcare needs. Kitson shakes her head, saying, “These are not dysfunctional people!” 

Students, too, are having difficulty affording the necessities of life, especially given the high rents in Victoria. Kitson, who does advocacy work, tells me that besides food, people often need help with expenses related to work and school—licence renewal fees, bus passes, and books. Last year, Camosun College, which has its own food bank, exhausted their budget because of higher demand and Mustard Seed shipped over a few skids of food to help out.

Mustard Seed’s Cowichan Valley warehouse—which serves as a distribution depot for 21 food banks all over the Island—has also given Palmer perspective on how people in rural areas are faring. “People who’ve worked in resource towns all their lives are now unemployed and having to turn to food banks,” he says. A new food bank in Cowichan Lake opened just last year.

This trend gets Palmer pretty vocal about another BC-wide issue: “I live in Sooke and all I see on the highways are logging trucks going by with raw logs that are being shipped to China, so naturally that has an impact on our own people here on the Island because they don’t have jobs as millworkers. We’re shipping logs overseas then buying the product back. It doesn’t make sense to me.” He’s “tired of the spin” from government and corporations about the trickle-down benefits of global trade. The on-the-ground reality, as he sees it, is workers thrown out of their jobs. They head to Victoria for work, but there isn’t anything for them here, except low-paid service jobs.

Palmer’s given up on the old idea that food banks were just a short-term measure. “At one time we had a sunset clause with our national association, that food banks would eventually be torn down. Well I don’t see that; across Canada now were serving 900,000 people per month.”

The lack of jobs paying a living wage, coupled with rising food prices— and a threadbare safety net—means the face of hunger is hard to identify. It could be anyone (a volunteer kindly directed me to a hamper pickup station on my arrival). There’s only one thing in common, says Palmer: “The people who come here are hungry. They are in survival mode.”

Mustard Seed is, fortunately, a welcoming, well-organized place. With no government funding, it relies on fundraising events and donations (cash preferred as it enables them to purchase exactly what is needed). Gardeners are encouraged to “Grow a Row” for the food bank—ideally root vegetables as they aren’t as perishable. See for more information. 


Since October 1988 I have met 274 monthly deadlines for Focus. Just to prove we are not totally addicted to them, David and I have decided to take a real summer holiday. The edition in your hands is our “summer” edition. We’ll be back in the office August 1, and in your mailboxes and on the streets in early September.

During her July holiday editor Leslie Campbell will be exploring BC. She wishes all Focus readers a super summer and thanks both our readers and advertisers for their tremendous support over 23 years.