At the beginning of its life, the mola mola sunfish is the size of a Skittle but, next thing you know, the sucker’s 11-feet of ugly and heavy as a rhino.

Fatigue, it seems, grows at approximately the same rate.

It’s not being tired. Tired can come with the satisfaction of a job well done. Fatigue, as the writer James Jones put it, is: “the knowledge of the unendingness and of the repetitious uselessness, the do it up so it can be done again, that makes Fatigue fatigue.”

After 16 months of pandemic, food bank volunteers may not be fatigued but they are getting a little weary. 

“They’ve been unbelievable,” says Claire MacLean, CEO of SHARE Family & Community Services.

When the lockdown hit there was – besides all the other uncertainty – a concern about whether volunteers would still trek out to collect, sort, drive and distribute food.

“They just continued to show up,” MacLean says. “And they have done so throughout this entire pandemic.”

It’s an honour to do the work, to bring people food and, in a big or small way, to become part of their lives, MacLean notes. 

“There’s not a single distribution day that goes by that there isn’t an amazing story,” she says. 

But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t taxing.

Part of the fatigue is seeing the depth of COVID-19’s impact in the lives of the people who can afford it least.

“This pandemic really hit people hard and hit people hard that were already struggling,” MacLean says. “To see that reality, day in, day out, that can be tiring.”

Newcomers to Canada, seniors, people with mental health challenges, people without secure employment and visible minorities have: “absolutely been disproportionately affected by this pandemic,” MacLean says.

With a new emphasis on fresh food, the food bank is looking for cash donations to provide people with fruits and vegetables, photo supplied

‘Additional economic damage’

Across Canada, there are 350,000 women who lost their job during the pandemic and – as of last February – haven’t gone back to work, according to a new study from Simon Fraser University.

Women comprised 48 percent of the workforce and suffered 58 percent of “lockdown-related job losses,” the study adds.

Those losses were particularly acute in retail, where women accounted for half the employees but lost 91 percent of the jobs.

“We have to acknowledge that other factors such as gender norms around unpaid care and wage discrimination have played a role in exacerbating pre-existing gender inequalities over the past year,” states SFU health sciences research associate Julia Smith in a release. “Unfortunately, a year later and the burden continues to fall increasingly on women, which is why more needs to be done to address this disparity and prevent additional economic damage.”

‘Financial chaos’

As well as health impacts, the pandemic has also created “financial chaos,” MacLean notes.

“That’s going to go on for quite some time,” she says.

That chaos may exacerbate food insecurity across the Tri-Cities where 15 percent of the population are concerned about having enough money to buy food, according to a draft report from Upland Agricultural Consulting.

As in the rest of the country, the driving cause of food insecurity is poverty, the report states.

In a bid to assuage the situation over the long-term, Upland Agricultural Consulting is at work on The Tri-Cities Food Security Action Plan.

Funded by the Union of B.C. Municipalities and supported by Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore and Belcarra, the plan is set to be unveiled this fall.

“We need to make sure the plan doesn’t just sit on a shelf,” says Ione Smith, a director with Upland Agricultural Consulting.

Smith chatted about the plan at a roundtable session Wednesday evening. While still a work in progress, the idea is to get local governments on board and to work with social service organizations and protect farmland in the interest of creating “a just and sustainable food system.” 

While broad in scope, the document does have some concrete ideas, including ideas about concrete.

While housing developments are generally judged on height, density, and relative affordability, Smith proposed community gardens be integrated into new urban developments.

The group also proposed restrictions on sending “ugly food” to the landfill and for the Tri-Cities to have a single, consistent policy on keeping bees and hens.  

The approach would also put an emphasis on buying local foods, partnerships between farmers and restaurants and introducing year-round farmers markets.

The report is set to be presented to the Union of B.C. Municipalities in August, after which it will be presented to local governments across the Tri-Cities.

Our town pantry

Since his story was published in the Dispatch earlier this month, Matt Djonlic says he’s close to finding a partner on his mini food pantry project. photo supplied

There’s still a stigma around asking for help – so what if people could get help without having to ask?

That question is the underpinning of Coquitlam resident Matt Djonlic’s plan to bring mini food pantries to the Tri-Cities.

The pantries function on the same principle as a Little Free Library only they’d be stocked with non-perishables instead of books.

The idea could improve food security while fostering a sense of community, Djonlic explains.

“I was quite surprised about how much food insecurity had risen during the pandemic,” he said. “There’s still this stigma around asking for help.”

With support from the Coquitlam Men’s Shed, Djonlic is looking for a partner to push the project forward.

The only condition, he said, is that the pantry be located on public property.

“I want people to feel that it’s a community space,” Djonlic noted.

His hope is that the pilot project, once launched, will inspire similar community food pantries across the region.

“I think the demand is all over,” he says. “We’re just really one hurdle away from making it happen.”

‘A lot of humans’

Since she took over as CEO of SHARE Family & Community Services in 2017, food insecurity has risen in the community, MacLean says.

The pandemic, she adds, just made those needs: “significantly more intense.”

In the past few years the organization has put a much greater emphasis on fresh food.

“There’s certainly an image people have of the food bank of lots of cans of soup and boxes of Kraft Dinner,” she says. “We’re really working hard to try to change that and make sure that it’s fresh fruit and vegetables . . . other things like that that are really going to make people as healthy as possible.”

That change in philosophy has meant logistical challenges, including on-site refrigeration and trucks with cold storage.

While there have been grants, the food bank is ultimately reliant on donations, she says, noting donors ranging from Wesbild development company to sports teams and people who, “come by and give what they can.”

There’s also a new emphasis on “culturally appropriate food,” she says, which also means asking for cash donations.

“You give a newcomer a box of Kraft Dinner and they kind of look and say, ‘What is this?’”

The food bank is only possible because of volunteers and staff, MacLean says.

“We couldn’t do it without a lot of humans,” she says.

But while COVID-19 rates have fallen dramatically in B.C., the food bank still has a big job ahead.

“I think what probably is the most tiring . . . is the fact that, for us, this isn’t over.”