PARDON THE CHANGE OF WORDING REGARDING the famous new wave band Tears for Fears, but somehow it seemed suitable over these past few days.
Last week was like few others for those of us associated with the London Food Bank. Following 28 years of service to our community, we decided the time was right to consider a new way of doing things, of helping those we traditionally assist to find a more dignified way of getting food than lining up at a food bank.
We had known this key moment would be coming for the past couple of years, but now that it had arrived we wondered how our community would react. Some of it we already knew, through detailed discussions over the last two years with various agencies and institutions who, like us, felt there had to be a better way. What if we could actually establish cheaper food venues (markets, co-ops, etc.) where our clients, instead of acquiring some $400 of food over the average year, could actually save thousands of dollars by accessing cheaper foodstuffs through these new locations closer to where they lived? It was an intriguing question. We would always keep the warehousing part of the operation going, along with food drives and donations, to collect food for the 25 other social agencies we consistently help, but the direct service part of what we were doing would slowly be moved out closer to where those struggling in poverty actually lived. It made sense to a lot of groups, especially since London has recently launched a food charter designed specifically to bring about such changes.
But what of the broader public, or those businesses that have faithfully supported us over the years? Would they be offended and perhaps stop giving? The best way to find that out is to launch the initiative, provide information for the rationale, and wait to see the result.
We didn’t have to wait long. No sooner had the media published the news than texts, emails, and phone calls began pouring in. That very afternoon we attended a business venue where former Prime Minister Paul Martin was speaking. We wondered what to expect. Almost immediately we were met with handshakes and congratulations for attempting to break the cycle of poverty and for innovating in a time when our city feels stuck in ambivalence and negativity.
Now, a few days later, we have come to understand that our city is looking for change. Across so many different sectors, leaders have opted to bypass our political dysfunction and take matters into their own hands. Much grassroots work has been done in recent years and these individuals feel the time is right to grow our community from within instead of waiting for some ultimate, and perhaps impossible, political solution. The steps we have just taken as a food bank have to be seen in that larger context – the desire for change is popping up everywhere.
In our 28 years of operation we have never experienced such a strong and positive response to any of our other announcements or initiatives. Instinctively, local citizens know that for food banks, which were supposed to be temporary, to take on a growing role each and every year, was to give a kind of subtle admission that we couldn’t change our own fate, that poverty, and those living in it, were doomed to be an escalating sector in our city. This they could not bring themselves to accept, and so they have opted to support those initiatives designed to give a sense of independence, dignity, and a sense of equal citizenship. It has perhaps been the most heartening response we could have expected.
I’ve been our food bank co-director for the entire duration of the organization. I have grown, been humbled, and learned during all those years. But I am also getting older, so much so that I have come to expect pain and a sense of loss as I age. And yet every so often I find myself delightfully surprised by those small miracles that make community living so worthwhile. I was surprised and overcome in these past few days by a city that doesn’t quit and that believes to collaborate for the sake of those struggling to make ends meet is perhaps the highest civic honour.
Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote: “Do something every day that scares you.” Well, after almost three decades we decided to take on a whopper and it left us biting our nails. But when our community gathered around in encouragement, fear gave way to thankfulness and expectation.
I have always been moved by the sentiment expressed by poet and mystic Rumi: “Let the beauty you love be what you do.” We have always loved this major undertaking of our lives at the food bank. But this past week we have discovered anew that we are not alone in that love, but that it is a citizen right and responsibility shared by a deeply compassionate community. So, yes, any fears we may have entertained concerning how Londoners would respond to this food bank change have been allayed by a sense of collective cheer when we acknowledge that we are our own solution and will write our own story that will include everyone.