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The need is always greater than you think

This edition of Market Square goes behind the scenes in the fight against poverty in Guelph, and why the mayor's task force is better late than never
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At this time of year, it’s impossible to ignore the nag in the back of your head that while we go out to the mall in a consumerist orgy during the twelfth month of the year, there are so many here in our community that go without year-round.

I’d like to consider myself above average in the awareness of such issues, but I have to admit that there are times that I’m overwhelmed with the immensity of the need, and I was so reminded again last Friday.

As I shadowed MPP Mike Schreiner for a Politico feature, I sat in on a meeting of “Peas in the Pod”, a group of charities and neighbourhood groups struggling to fight hunger in Guelph.

These groups, which are literally feeding hundreds of people in need in our city, are often doing so as volunteers, and without ongoing funding or support from the City of Guelph.

Consider the University of Guelph student-run food bank, which helps on average 250 students, 65 per cent of whom are graduate students with dependents to support. Many grad students are international students, which means they pay higher tuition, and have limited employment options while they’re here.

Across town, the Silvercreek Community Market, which is run out of the All Saint’s Lutheran Church, has received funding from the Niagara Dioses for a second year to fund garden fresh boxes. The program was created because many in the Willow Road area were finding themselves having to journey to the North End Harvest Market on Waverly if they wanted access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Depending on your transit luck, and how much you have to walk, that’s about a two-hour travelling time back and forth just for fresh produce.

Speaking of Willow Road, Onward Willow is trying to establish its own food cupboard and has been able to set up a temporary one for the holidays thanks to a private donation. The Sparks and Brownies are also doing their part by running a food drive, so if you see a uniformed little girl collecting cans in your neck of the woods, she’s on a mission.

Now you may be wondering why all these neighbourhood groups are starting their own mini food banks when Guelph has a food bank. You know, the Guelph Food Bank.

We’ll get there in a second.

During his inaugural address Monday, Mayor Cam Guthrie talked about visiting a tent city along York Rd. He said he was “appalled” at what he saw there, and that it was “unacceptable that we have people living like this in our community.”

He’s not wrong.

Guthrie then announced his intention to create an Emergency Task Force that “will amplify the work already being done by the Poverty Task Force, the Guelph-Wellington Drug Strategy, and front-line agencies,” he explained.

“It will bring forward measurable solutions to issues that affecting people in all corners of our city.”

More attention to these issues, and more help for those trying to address them, will be appreciated, but despite the mayor’s good intentions, his speech makes it sound like he just discovered the problem.

The nature of the solution too, an “Emergency Task Force”, also says that this kind of sneaked up on us. That one day everything was fine, and the next we had tent cities all over town, and people in the streets hungry, or addicted to drugs, or suffering mental health problems. Maybe even all three.

The emergency didn’t happen in a day. It didn’t even happen in a year. Mayor Guthrie is well-meaning, and if his task force can make an impact on the problem, so much the better, but we’re talking about systemic issues.

Consider this: according to many of our Peas mentioned above, they deal with people everyday that can’t deal with the Guelph Food Bank. Why? When you use the Guelph Food Bank you have to have a piece of I.D., a proof of address, a proof of income, and a proof of expenses. Plus, unless you can go between 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. Monday to Friday, you have to make an appointment.

Many of the neighbourhood food cupboards only ask for a name, address and phone number. They don’t belittle the Food Bank or tell the people they help not to use it, but it’s hard to imagine that someone in need of a food bank is going to have their receipts lined up as if they’re going into an actual bank for a loan.

Of course, I don’t want to demean the Food Bank either. They do good and necessary work in our community, but it’s the system you see. A system that still seems to say that you should be ashamed to be poor. That you should be ashamed to ask for help.

I hope that Mayor Guthrie is right when he says that his Task Force will be about action and not talk. It will be refreshing to cover action for a change.