Upstairs in the little kitchenette at the Yates Street drop-in centre, a couple of young women have prepared the day’s menu: quesadillas for lunch, chicken stir-fry for supper.
Serving meals to so many hungry kids hasn’t always been what the Youth Empowerment Society does, but then we haven’t always lived in an age when so many Victorians have had to choose between paying the rent and filling their stomachs. That’s particularly true if you’re 17, broke, living on your own and trying to walk the tightrope without a net.
YES, a non-profit life ring for Victoria teens who are struggling to keep their heads above the water, finds food costs are taking a bigger bite out of its budget these days. It’s not just a matter of feeding all the kids who, say, go straight from school to the drop-in centre for supper. There are also those who get fed while staying in the emergency youth shelter, or the ones who have left the shelter but still knock on the door in the middle of the night, wondering if there’s something to eat.
Then there are the teens at the drop-in centre who shuffle their feet and ask if there’s any extra food they can take to younger siblings living in homes with empty cupboards. Sometimes there is. Sometimes there isn’t. “Yesterday, I gave someone a cup of uncooked rice,” says one of the women in the kitchenette.
These kids are the opposite of demanding, YES workers say. Hungry as they may be, many are reluctant — whether due to shame, shyness, a lack of self-worth, whatever — to ask for help. It’s left to staff, when meeting them for appointments, to ask if they have eaten that day.
“I buy a lot of Tim Hortons,” one counsellor says. It’s easier to impart life-skills to someone, support them through a crisis or help them apply for ID when they’re not distracted by hunger pangs.
YES does get food money from the provincial government, for which it is grateful, but the budget doesn’t always keep up to the combination of demand and inflation. That’s why the organization was happy to get a $10,000 grant from the local chapter of the Sovereign Order of St. John, a philanthropic group which itself got a big Times Colonist Christmas Fund grant to spread among recipients such as YES.
Heaven knows inflation is hammering many such non-profits. It’s a double-whammy for feed-the-hungry organizations. Not only do high prices push more people to the food banks, but it costs the food banks more to buy the groceries to feed them. One example: prior to the pandemic the annual food budget at Nourish Cowichan, where volunteers prepare meals for schoolchildren, was $200,000; by last Christmas it was nudging $1 million.
The thing is, it’s not just food-centric charities that feel the pinch. Outfits like YES, ones whose core mission isn’t primarily about feeding people, find themselves feeding people nonetheless. Case in point: the Victoria Native Friendship Centre now distributes 440 food hampers a month. They cost $100 each. A Friday lunch at the centre now seats 200 people, up from 40 pre-COVID.
For several years, donations to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund went almost exclusively to the Salvation Army and Mustard Seed Street Church for distribution to the people who are most in need at Christmas. (It’s a good arrangement; the TC is good at soliciting donations, but the agencies are better at identifying the individuals who could most benefit from help.)
Christmas Fund money still flows through those organizations, but since the pandemic Times Colonist readers have been so generous — bless ’em — that the fund has been able to add to the number of groups spreading the joy.
Hunger has been the priority. Among the 36 non-profits getting Christmas Fund grants in 2022 were not only a dozen Vancouver Island food banks, but groups as diverse as the Oaklands Community Centre, the 1Up Single Parent Resource Centre and the Victoria Women’s Transition House. Esquimalt Neighbourhood House got money for a Saturday market in which cash-strapped clients can help themselves to produce. Nanaimo’s Loaves and Fishes, which distributes still-edible food donated by grocers, got help.
Not all of these groups were founded with the idea of feeding the people they serve, but when someone is hungry, what do you do? You make quesadillas for lunch, chicken stir-fry for supper, and hope there’s a way to pay for it.
HOW TO DONATE
You can donate by going to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund web page, tcchristmasfund.com.
That page is linked to CanadaHelps, which is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.
Or mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Road, Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.
You can also use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.