For essential worker Betty Rogers Sheehan, the Greater Saint John Emergency Food Program came along at just the right time.
With two kids at home all the time because of the pandemic, and demanding jobs keeping both Betty and her husband at work all day, once-a-week deliveries by a unique network of caring organizations that came together amid the COVID-19 crisis have made a world of difference.
“My son is a big eater,” Rogers Sheehan says of her growing and frequently hungry 13-year-old. “It was at the point where I just couldn’t believe the difference it was making having him home all the time instead of in school. Our grocery bills practically doubled.”
Shortages of time, energy and money presented a huge barrier. But instead of going hungry, the Emergency Food Program has kept their home and hundreds of others in the greater Saint John area well-stocked with a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, snacks for the kids, canned meats and staples such as bread, pasta, eggs and milk.
Now, when Rogers Sheehan gets home from her exhausting job as a cleaner, she doesn’t have to worry about her growing teens having enough to eat.
“There are no words to explain what the food program has meant to us,” she says. “It has really helped my family tremendously.”
Since this array of not-for-profit community organizations joined forces to bridge the gap created by the sudden loss of school breakfast, lunch and snack programs, more than 1,500 food packs have been delivered in the greater Saint John area. That’s about 47,000 meals for about 3,000 people of all ages.
The Emergency Food Program, launched in the wake of the declaration of the state of emergency in March, came together swiftly and is a testament to the collective might of community organizations in the city.
It serves as a heart-warming example of the generosity of hundreds of organizations and individuals who over just a few weeks donated more than $100,000 in a word-of-mouth, grassroots effort to fund the program.
Even though Saint John is known as a community-minded city, the overwhelming response to this has been a surprise to even the organizers. Crediting the pandemic for heightening awareness of the problem of food insecurity, they hope the generous support and collective action will endure even after the pandemic eases.
Indeed, organizers say this “collective impact” approach is a model for other communities in the province and the country.
“This emergency program formed because of a variety of stable programs and services around the city coming to a halt due to COVID-19 and everyone collectively saying, ‘We need to do something together.’ Our organizations pivoted and addressed the need," says Dustin Leclerc, executive director of Carleton Community Centre, one of the founding organizations of the program.
Other organizations that have provided assistance to the Emergency Food Program include the Waterloo Village Neighbourhood Association, Inner City Youth Ministry, PULSE, the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, the Boys & Girls Club of Saint John, Horizon Health and Pennies and Sparrows.
The food program has evolved over the past three months with the help of a significant support network that embraced the organizations and expanded their reach. The support network includes the United Way, Living SJ, BCAPI, Port Saint John, Rise Up Saint John, local food banks, Saint John Harbour MLA Gerry Lowe and the Saint John Human Development Council.
The port offered use of its expansive Diamond Jubilee cruise ship terminal. It has been perfect for the Emergency Food Program thanks to its large size, making it safe for social distancing and the storage and safety of food. With this space, organizers and volunteers can store, pack and send food out for delivery to those in need.
One of the advantages of having the port location is that it has allowed for more variety and led to the involvement of other community-minded organizations.
“We were able to really focus on having access to fresh fruit and vegetables and add other staples like milk, eggs and bread along with canned items, many of which are donated by companies like Irving Oil and Crosby’s,” says Penni Eisenhauer, community navigator for the Waterloo Village Neighborhood Association. “I've had clients tell me their pantry has never been so varied and so full.”
As restrictions around the pandemic are loosening, the Greater Saint John Emergency Food Program is starting to wind down. However, the organizations say they are walking away with many lessons learned. The most important is that whatever crisis Saint John is faced with, people and organizations are ready to jump in to help.
Jim Quinn, president and CEO of Port Saint John, says it has been a delight to see the program working so efficiently and effectively.
“This is so typical of Saint John. We have a great city,” he says. “The people in this city are so willing to give. Not only in a monetary way but as volunteers too. We have to be, on a per capita basis, among the most giving people in Canada.”
Brice Belyea, interim chair of Living SJ, says the collective impact model that Saint John has been using to reduce poverty is a major ingredient in the outstanding success of the Emergency Food Program.
“Over the past decade, our non-profits, government organizations and business leaders have been learning how to work together in big ways to end generational poverty. I think without question, Saint John has proven itself to be very capable of tackling big problems and rowing together to solve them. Collectively, we can get so much more done. I know it’s a model the province would like to see more of.”
“There are no words to explain what the food program has meant to us. It has really helped my family tremendously.”