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Soaring inflation, influx of student clients hit Victoria food bank

Mustard Seed resources being strained
Treska Watson, the director of operations at the Mustard Seed Street Church stands in front of a truck used to move donations from the location in Esquimalt after a fire on March 27 caused damage to the inside of the location in Victoria on Queens Avenue. (Hollie Ferguson/News Staff)

Tanara Oliveira/Contributor

The Victoria housing crisis is about more than just paying for a home.

According to one of Vancouver Island’s largest food banks, Mustard Seed, the rise in rent prices produces situations where a person needs to choose between having a place to live or food to eat.

The food bank has noticed an exponential increase in demand for its services, especially from newcomers and university students.

“We are seeing an increase in the amount of people, but also in the variety of people,” Colleen Sparks, director of development of Mustard Seed. “Besides students and older people, we have also noticed that people who have never used the food bank before are turning to it now. People that you would never imagine would come. Some of them say that they are not sure if they can afford the mortgage and food, so they turn to food banks.”

Not receiving wages that match the minimum necessary to survive in the city – known as a living wage - is also a factor that influences this increase in demand for food banks, Sparks said.

“We have a significant portion of people coming from other countries,” Sparks said. “We realize that there are two factors that influence this the most: the high cost of housing and the increase in the value of food. When you see food rising eight per cent, 10 per cent, you can imagine that people are going to have a hard time affording this if wages don’t rise proportionally”

Sparks said the current living wage in Victoria is $24 an hour.

“And most people don’t make that,” Sparks said.

During this critical time, donations continue to pour in, Sparks said, and Mustard Seed also relies on the assistance of volunteers who were once in need and are now giving back in any way they can.

“We are well-supported by the community, both in the form of food donations and money. When we look for donations, we try to emphasize that cash donations go a lot further. We also have many people who need us for a period of time and then don’t need it anymore. For example, students. After graduation, they tend to find more skilled jobs and stop coming to us. Some of these people also end up coming back as volunteers.”

The work of helping those in need, which spans over 20 years at Mustard Seed alone, generates a source of comfort in times of extreme vulnerability and translates into the hundreds of touching people’s stories.

“There was a man who was coming to make a donation from a club that he participates in here in town,” Sparks said. “They donated a significant amount and when he told us his story, he told us that when he was little his father died and his mother had seven children and almost no condition to provide food for all of them. They basically relied on the food bank to survive. So now he has decided, in his 60s, to give back and help others who are in need.”

Mustard Seed has a distribution centre that collects 10,000 pounds of food every day. This food is often in perfect condition to be eaten, but often the distributors - such as supermarkets - find some details that cause them to not sell that product. So they take these donations, bring them to its warehouse and volunteers make a selection of what can actually be turned into quality food. Then they pass this food on to the Mustard Seed chef, who transforms it into meals. What is left over is distributed to 60 other organizations.

“You never know why people use the food bank,” Sparks said. “So we try very hard, especially in this time of general price increases, to make sure that people continue to have access to us.”

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