Fred Pattje had some idea about experiencing hunger going in, but it was as a university student decades ago.
More recently, the city councillor became more aware of the impact hunger and poverty has on the people of Nanaimo through his work on council.
After hearing stories and “obscene numbers” for Nanaimo, Pattje decided he needed to put faces to the problem and spent time volunteering to feed homeless people.
He didn’t so much jump at the chance to participate in the recent Hunger Challenge organized by the News Bulletin and Loaves and Fishes Community Food Bank, but he recognized the opportunity and didn’t shy away, either.
Going in, he admitted he wasn’t well -prepared – daily trips to his local grocery store for fresh fruits and veggies are the norm; canned foods not so much.
Pattje was apprehensive about his first trip to the food bank. He’s not exactly an unknown personality, but the very act of requesting help also gave him pause.
“It’s just not something that’s normal, to go in and ask for food,” he said Monday, three days after completing the two-week challenge.
Initial fears were allayed, however, by the “tremendous” people who work and volunteer for the food bank and its various satellite depots.
He was also recognized, several times in fact, which created a bit of awkwardness (and a quip or two about how little city councillors are paid) until he explained.
The food itself was indeed a challenge.
And he struggled to stay within the budget he set.
“I did get to know the bottom of my freezer a lot better,” Pattje said, adding he benefited mightily from a few surprise dinner guests who arrived with food, as well as a few council-related functions that provided food.
Beyond the challenge of finding enough food, the exercise provided exactly what Pattje hoped – connections and insight into the people who live hungry every day.
“By far the most valuable exercise was to meet the people – they really do come from all walks of life – and share some stories with them,” he said.
“There were some people you could have plucked out of any office or any work situation.”
MAGI COOPER AND BOB MORRISSEY
Magi Cooper is a regular volunteer with Loaves and Fishes, so the idea to commit two full weeks to living on a client’s limited budget seemed like “a fabulous opportunity”.
“It’s one thing to serve people as they come in every week, but there’s something about understanding the hardships they experience – it’s another experience on the other side of the table,” she said.
As part of the challenge, Cooper and husband Bob Morrissey went into their pantry and piled the items they were permitted (from information provided by actual food bank clients) for the next two weeks into a laundry basket.
“It was a bit shocking that everything fit into that laundry basket,” Cooper said, adding that trying to live off that food and $25 a week was “pretty humbling”.
Standing in line to get food was also a humbling experience in terms of feeling a bit of fear and embarrassment, Morrissey said, and he realized that many people likely feel the same, particularly the first time being there.
But it also helped Morrissey better understand the broad scope of the issue and reaffirmed that some common stereotypes are poorly informed.
“It’s not just about needing food, it’s about being poor and what are the ramifications of that,” he said. “Food is important, but it’s just a little piece of a much bigger issue.”
Throughout the challenge, though neither Cooper nor Morrissey went hungry, the experience was definitely a challenge and served the intended purpose of raising their own awareness.
And the couple, both therapists and counsellors, is already talking about their experience as much as they can and hoping the challenge will grow.
“I hope the good that can come of this is fewer people needing to access the services of the food bank … generally increase the quality of their lives,” Morrissey said.
Brian Fillmore joined the Loaves and Fishes board of directors a few months ago and his church will become the newest distribution depot this summer.
He has some experience with poverty and hunger and became more aware through community involvement, but admits he “never understood the need until I went and saw the amount of food people get … and the need.”
“Because my eyes were opened I want to spread that awareness,” he said.
Going into the two-week challenge, Fillmore was hesitant about waiting in line and concerned he might be “grilled with questions” about why he was there.
“There was none of that. Just super friendly, loving people,” he said, adding he gained considerable insight by chatting with clients and staff.
“Almost all the conversations were about the price of things,” he said. “It’s the main topic of conversation, how expensive everything is.”
His conversations were with people from nearly all sectors of the community, a fact he hopes more people come to know.
“It’s not homeless people,” he said. “It’s a lot of young, working families that are just struggling to get by and that little bit of food top-up really helps them out.”
Although he didn’t go hungry, his eating habits were certainly changed during the two weeks.
He and his wife normally eat plenty of fresh food, but with a strict budget and rations, Fillmore found himself eating chili and a bun several days in a row, or a big batch of pasta for as long as it lasted.
Aside from talking about the challenge and helping raise awareness of the need to address hunger and poverty in general, Fillmore says he’s more aware of food waste in his home, noting he’ll be making an effort to cook smaller amounts so there’s fewer leftovers that potentially get forgotten in the back of the fridge.