‘It feels impossible’: The struggle for food in Chilliwack

Charities and the people getting food from them are facing major challenges in Chilliwack, including unstable funding and transportation issues

By Tyler Olsen | November 3, 2021 |6:15 am

Thousands of people in uncertain financial situations across the Fraser Valley rely on charities to feed themselves. But a new study suggests that many of the charities have to deal with their own precarious financial states, uncertain about how long they’ll be able to help those who depend on them to keep food on the table.

Meanwhile, those who rely on the services say a variety of barriers exist that can make it difficult to access food from such programs.

Those are some of the insights contained in a new UFV report on food insecurity in Chilliwack. The report drew on interviews with both community members and program providers. And while there are also bright spots, the operators of food banks, soup kitchens, and an array of other community food programs told researchers that inconsistent funding is a constant challenge and source of uncertainty.

“We never know if we’re going to get the next grant or not,” one provider told researchers with UFV’s Community Health and Social Innovation Hub (CHASI). “We never know if we’re gonna have to say ‘Sorry, two weeks from now everybody, [program] will be defunct.’”

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A lack of stable funding makes it hard to hire and retain the paid permanent staffers that are needed to coordinate a program, handle logistics, and secure funding. And that means the employees themselves are making less than they should.

“You can get donated food. You can get money for capital costs, if you want a piece of equipment. But finding ongoing money for staffing is almost impossible. Until then, the other thing we’re doing is paying people subpar wages.”

It’s not all bad news. Larissa Kowalski, CHASI’s lead researcher, told The Current that the pandemic had increased the amount of funding for programs to help people in need, and that there is a hope that those supports will continue into the future. And a community food hub currently under construction is expected to mitigate some of the largest logistical hurdles for providers.

Other challenges facing the city’s food providers include transporting food and storage. But transportation issues also affect the people using the services.

Citizens face barriers to access programs

One program provider told researchers that city buses would allow a maximum of two strollers. Any additional parents with strollers were left unable to board. That maximum capacity has been raised now to four, but that requires using wheelchair spaces. Now, if there are four strollers on board and a bus pulls up to allow a wheelchair user to board, one of the strollers must get off. Still, providers say the situation is an improvement over the two-stroller limit.

“Using the bus in Chilliwack at all, just never worked,” one program user said. “They’re so inaccessible, and very, sort of, discriminatory against riders who have mobility aids or wheelchairs. And they try to say that you can’t have a stroller, but I use my stroller as a mobility aid when I have my child.”

The weather was also a regular challenge, with those who use food programs describing the challenges of lining up outside and waiting for long periods—sometimes in the rain or summer heat—to get food.

“Whether it’s the heat of the sun, summer, or dead of the winter, you have to line up outside,” one person said.

“My son is in daycare now. So, it’s not like, you know, we’re standing in the rain with him for an hour and a half anymore. But we were last year,” another said. “Now it’s like, I go in that parking lot, and I’m turned around like five times. I’m like, no. I’m not doing this. I was there during the lunch hour, and there’s still twenty people in line up. So it feels impossible.”

For more on food security in Chilliwack, find the report here.

In a future edition, we’ll talk to Larissa Kowalski, the lead researcher with UFV”s Community Health and Social Innovation Hub, about both the challenges facing food security, but also why she is optimistic about the work being done in Chilliwack.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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