Not all pandemic changes to our lives are bad ones.
Halton Community Housing Corporation manager Erin Mifflin and her staff are proof of that.
Yes, they are working longer hours these days – hours that take them away from family – and are putting themselves in potential harm’s way, but there is a payback in there that can’t be overstated.
It comes in the form of the smiles and thank-yous and even signs left at the doors as Mifflin and her team of 10 expand their daily work day to ensure the residents in their housing communities have healthy, well-balanced meals at a time when food would otherwise be scarce, or at least tough to obtain.
The role of food delivery to these housing properties is normally handled by Food for Life, a well-established group that serves Halton Region and beyond. That group, and an army of volunteers, ensure food that would otherwise go to waste lands in the arms of people who need it the most.
But when the pandemic hit, the volunteers that would normally bring the food into the units and apartment buildings understandably didn’t feel safe. In this era of social distancing, things have to be done differently.
Mifflin and Food for Life executive director Graham Hill almost simultaneously had the same thought and solution to this problem.
“We actually called each other at the same time,” Hill recalled. “But it was really under Erin’s leadership that we formed this great working relationship where we knew that we could get the food out to the building. But we didn’t have the people power due to physical distancing, nor, from a safety perspective, did we want to have random volunteers going into these buildings that are potentially full of vulnerable people.”
Mifflin and her a team of 10 (they keep the circle tight to avoid over-exposure) spend about three hours each day going into the various housing projects where they are met by the Food for Life truck loaded with pre-packed groceries, including meat, dairy, breads and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Halton team then enters the building and drops a week’s worth of groceries at each door.
“We couldn’t have volunteers from the community coming in, particularly in our seniors communities, and we didn’t want our tenants coming down to the common space to spend time there (where the food was previously distributed),” Mifflin said. “So we as staff had to take on the program ourselves and we went from a model where tenants would come down and pick out the food they wanted to a pre-bagged model. So that meant the Food for Life role also got a lot more complicated because now they had to bag all the food in the warehouse beforehand, so they had to get those resources going. So now everything comes to our communities pre-bagged and we deliver the bags door to door.”
The payback comes in various ways, Mifflin said.
“Everywhere I go and my staff goes, we always hear a lot of positive feedback from our residents, which really lifts our spirits,” she said. “They are really thankful. A few residents will put out thank-you signs on their doors as we are walking by dropping off food. We also get a lot of shoutouts – “thank you, dear” or “blessings on you” – it’s really nice to hear that obviously.”
Mifflin knew this was a great program before it became part of her daily work day. Living it daily has only drove that point home harder.
“Typically, I would not be in so many communities so much on a weekly basis, but it’s been really great to be able to see in person the role of these food programs,” she said, “and see how many vulnerable residents we are actually helping out with this. I really don’t know what some of our residents would do if it weren’t for this program. Some of them have a disability or other health concerns and if they had to get their own food in this environment, I’m not sure how they would do that.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Mifflin said they were dealing with about 475 families in this project, but as of a week ago that number was up to 611 and rising.
“We’ve seen about a 30% increase in demand,” Mifflin said.
Mifflin can’t say enough about the work her staff has put in to turn this operation into what she calls a “well-oiled machine.”
“I’m really proud of the work the staff at Halton have done,” she said. “Many of us, not just in housing, but across the region, are working around the clock to respond to COVID-19 and keep Halton residents safe and healthy. It’s a really great feeling.”
Hill, whose Food for Life has been doing its good work in Halton and the surrounding area for 25 years, is thrilled to have partners such as the Halton Community Housing Corporation.
“They really do care about the community and it goes well beyond just being an administrative body,” Hill said. “They are hands on the ground, on the front lines. I wouldn’t say as much as a nurse, but they are certainly putting themselves in positions that others would view as vulnerable and they are doing it in a safe way with such dignity and we couldn’t be serving if we didn’t have a partner like them.”
HELP GOES A LONG WAY
Food for Life, like Second Harvest in Toronto, is essential to the well-being of the people for whom they provide.
And Graham Hill, executive director of Food for Life, will tell you they are doing more with less than ever right now as the pandemic makes things tougher for everyone.
This week alone, Hill figures the Food for Life warehouse will put together about 2,500 bags of food that will be distributed though Halton Region and beyond, depending on demand. Hill says, on a weekly basis, they impact about 18,000 lives.
Normally, their warehouse would see 300-400 volunteers each week packing up food. But with COVID-19 lurking, that job is now being done by a staff of just seven workers.
Fortunately for Hill, the community has answered the call for help with the Halton Catholic District School Board re-deploying their custodians to help pack these food packs and off-set the loss of man power.
The demand continues to rise and Hill is confident that need hasn’t peaked yet.
Food supply, though, is not the issue at present.
“We rely on fresh food recovery and we don’t rely on traditional food drives because 90% of the food we share is fresh perishable,” Hill said. “We are talking dairy, meat, other proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables. Right now there is a surge in those types of donations.”
The cost of getting that food to the people who need is actually going up, and that is where Food for Life needs the public’s help.
“Where we are really feeling it is our operating costs because of extra staffing rather than volunteers so we can have a consistent workforce that we have along with all the additional health and safety costs, whether that’s sanitizer, gloves, increased sanitation, regular deep cleaning just to make sure we’re ahead of anything and being as preventative as possible,” Hill said.
Operating costs are up about $600 a day.
Those wishing to help ease this strain can do so with a $10 donation by texting ‘FOOD’ to 41010. Financial donations can also be made by calling 905-635-1106 and pressing 2.