Windsor Pivots to Continue Being There for Clients

Aisles of fresh produce and shelves stocked with a variety of goods. It’s not exactly what comes to mind when most people think about food banks. However, there are food banks that operate EXACTLY like this. One great example is the Unemployed Help Centre (UHC) in Windsor. 

“At the Unemployed Help Centre in Windsor, our food bank is based on a grocery-store model. We really aim for that”, says June Muir, CEO. “What this means is that when you enter the food bank, it is exactly like going to a grocery store. It’s great because the clients can pick and choose what they like and will use. We really try our best to make sure that there is a diverse selection, and the food is nutritious so that people can make healthy choices. We are able to eat what we want to eat and we want clients to have those same choices. Our food bank is the hub for 15-member food banks of the Windsor Essex Food Bank Association”. 

And they offer much more. 

“The UHC is really a hub of opportunities. We have 26 programs and services that people can access all under one roof. We have many employment services, newcomer services, cooking workshops, we have youth programming and lots going on in our community kitchen. The kitchen is deemed an offsite campus for the Greater Essex District School Board, where students who maybe aren’t a fit for a typical school setting can come to our culinary program and get a credit towards their grade 12 diploma.  Many come to us because they feel at home and they can feel a sense of belonging. We also live in an area where we have the largest number of greenhouse growers in North America, so we are rescuing a lot of fresh produce and we are sharing it up the highway throughout Ontario including the North. So, we are not only helping our communities but other communities as well”. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic significantly impacted food banking.  But the need was still there, and the food bank knew that despite the lockdowns, they needed to be there for those in need, so they just adapted. 

“The pandemic has been hard because due to health guidelines, we had to close our grocery store models and some food banks had to switch to “by appointment” only. Windsor has been one of the hardest hit communities by the pandemic. We quickly realized we had to do something, so we opened up 5 drive-thru/walk up food hubs. The mayor worked with us and redeployed his workers to help us make food hampers and distribute them. Having these hubs also provided peace of mind for our food bank members by knowing their clients could continue to access food when they had to close because they could not operate safely during the pandemic. We also put a Food Assistance Helpline in place so people without transportation or are in isolation can call to request food delivery. This was made possible through our collaboration with Children’s Aid Society who redeployed their workers to deliver our food hampers twice a week. This was especially needed when our city busses stopped running for several weeks. Once the cold weather hit we had to move back inside our food bank and use a rolling conveyor belt to provide a clients with their hampers. But once the weather is nice, we would like to put out our tents up again to create the drive-thru food hubs. The pandemic has not been easy for food banks, and the hampers do not allow people to make their own choices, something we cannot avoid.  To adjust to that, we are asking people to call us if there is a product, they really need so we can try to provide it.”.

A lot of essential partnerships were formed during the pandemic, which helped accomplish things that may not have been possible before. 

“We had the support of the mayor and without this, we wouldn’t have an arena to build the hampers. Unfortunately, we are now down to 3 redeployed workers because they have been called back to work. The good news is that we built good relationships that will remain long past the pandemic and are so proud that our community came together when we needed it most.   Once we come out of lockdown, we are expecting to have more volunteers so this will help us keep up with the demand for service. We also had a lot of support from Canadians during the pandemic which enabled us to do a lot, such as buying diverse food products. Windsor has a lot of international students who do not have the means to afford food and we were able to help them, as well as newcomers and migrant workers. We were also able to buy larger amounts of nutritious food such as yogurt, cheese, milk, meat and specifically halal meat. Finally, we were also able to share funds with our 15 food banks. Some didn’t have the money to pay their rent or purchase gift cards for clients, so it felt good to be able to step in and provide.  We could not have done this without the support of Feed Ontario and Food Bank Canada!” 

Food bank clients come and go over the years, but June has met a few who will forever remain in her heart.  

“I still enjoy doing hands-on work at our food bank. I want to be out there and among the people because I love it. I meet a lot of great clients, who are just looking for help in a non-stigmatizing environment.  I remember years ago one woman who said it was her daughter’s birthday and she did not have a gift and was unable to give her a party but said “I just want to have a family meal”. It really broke my heart. I really wanted to give her a cake, because I couldn’t imagine not being able to do that, and so we made one, with a quick recipe we found online. We gave her lots of food, but we also gave her the food to make a taco dinner, just for the special birthday meal. We receive a lot of toy donations, so we looked and were able to find a gift for her daughter. When she came in, she was devastated, but she left with a big smile and she was just so grateful”. 

The food banks will be the first to tell you that they are not the solution to food insecurity, but until then, they want to be there for those in need. 

“We know that we are not the long-term solution to food insecurity, but in the meantime, we cannot let our neighbours stay hungry.  The 15 member food banks of the Windsor Essex Food Bank Association meet every other month to discuss how we can continue to provide for people living with food insecurity issues.  We are grateful for the support we have received during the pandemic, but we know there is a long road ahead. We cannot wait until the lockdowns are done so we can go back to our grocery store model and work with other communities to continue to provide for those who need us, until they no longer do.”