Fueling the Community

Local Food Bank fulfills its goal of reducing hunger in the Comox Valley

The Comox Valley Food Bank’s 35-40 volunteers help feed approximately 1,300 people—about 380 of them children—each month. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

It’s a cool fall day, and the rain is threatening as it usually does this time of year. Here, in this grey weather, across a nondescript grey parking lot, the radiant cutlery sun sign of the Comox Valley Food Bank shines bright. It looks a little like hope in a world of grey.

Inside I am greeted with kindness, tired eyes and by shelves filled rows of food in brown paper bags. Susan Somerset, who manages the Comox Valley Food Bank Society, has spent all morning handing out bags of food to people in need. Each month approximately 1,300 people—about 380 of which are children—receive food aid from the Comox Valley Food Bank. The Comox Valley Food Bank was established in December of 1983 with the mandate of reducing hunger in the community.

“I don’t even want to begin to count the hours I’m here,” says Somerset, who began working with the Comox Valley Food Bank Society 15 years ago, and has been the manager for the past seven years. Somerset admits to being on site every day of the week right now, usually for eight hours each day. She humbly asks not to disclose how many of those hours she is actually paid for, which are much less than her time commitment to the project.

Jeff Hampton, the president of the Comox Valley Food Bank Society, is also here today. Hampton has been a dedicated member of the project for more than 30 years and has seen it through all of its seven locations to date. He first joined the food bank in 1984, shortly after its conception. In 1988 Hampton joined the board of directors, and in March of 2006 he became president.

We are meeting in a small office tucked to the right of the main door, with clipboards full of information forms, and just enough room for these two organizers and their working desks. Most of the rooms in the building are for sorting food.

In the first room immediately after walking though the entrance door is a square of tables, with baskets on the tables for incoming donations, and boxes of toiletries and pet food underneath. Milk crates line the wall by the entrance, overflowing with apples, squash and other recent additions of produce. Across the room wall to wall shelving units are filled with brown paper bags, already filled with dry goods.

Bags are prepared in advance by volunteers who collect one or two items from each category that do not need to be refrigerated or frozen. Such items include canned foods, dry cereals or granola bars and other packaged foods. When people come to collect their bags the fresh foods like milk, eggs, bread and produce are added, as well as any frozen items like meat or desserts.

The second room has boxes full of dried goods to be sorted into these brown paper bags, and fridges that hold all of the perishable items. Freezers are also lined up against the walls and contain frozen bread, desserts, meats and more. A quick glance reveals some paneer cheese in one, and berry pies in another.

Around the corner there is a “bakery” area where all fresh bread and croissants, pastries, and baked goods are distributed. The Food Bank works on a first-come, first-served basis with availability, but likes to meet the needs of the individual when they can.

“We have a couple of volunteers wait on them,” says Somerset. “They ask, ‘What kind of bread do you like?’ Usually we have so much we’re trying to get rid of it.”
Right now Somerset has about 35 to 40 volunteers. “We don’t need that many at once,” she says. “We have some on call if it suddenly gets busy. Some people have been here over 10 years!

“Volunteers are often word of mouth,” she adds. “We take a lot of people. It doesn’t matter their age—if someone wants to give back I find something for them to do. We do have children here but they need to be supervised.”

Volunteers may be interested in building resumé hours, or may be clients of the Food Bank themselves. Sometimes community groups like a school class or a collection of nurses will come in for a shift. There are also people from the John Howard Society and those who need to perform justice correction hours who come in to help out.

Volunteers are the backbone of the organization, compiling about 200 to 300 of the brown bags full of food per week to be handed out on distribution days. Volunteers are constantly sorting, packing, bagging, doing inventory, storing and shelving items. They also help with general donations and purchases. It is important to the organization that volunteers approach each customer with dignity and respect, and that there is no discrimination. The Food Bank upholds that all people deserve to be fed, and distribute food to individuals with no bias, regardless of age, sex, race, religion, sexual identity and so on.

Continuing on our tour we come into a small kitchen where a few volunteers are still at work portioning out a donation of frozen fish from Portuguese Joe’s. The man in front of me extends a wet hand as a playful jester to shake mine and we both smile at the aroma of fish that wafts with his movement. A mixture of snapper and halibut has been donated. Usual selling price? About $23.95 per pound. We all reflect on the quality of the fish that is being portioned—about three large pieces per family—into plastic bags.

“He said he might drop by with some oysters later,” says Hampton, smiling. It is easy to see he is pleased with this donation. The Food Bank sources most of its donations from local grocers, who pass on cull produce, near dated products, discontinued items and damaged grocery products. “Our Food Bank van goes out to local stores 364 days a year,” says Somerset. “We pick up from all the stores here.”

“The Comox Valley Food Bank has been actively salvaging perishable foods discarded from grocery stores since 1984, the first year of operations—mainly from Safeway and Thrifty Foods,” adds Hampton. “The other stores have been rather reluctant to follow suit until about two or three years ago.” The Food Bank now receives donated food items from both the Courtenay and Comox Quality Foods, the Real Canadian Superstore, John – Your Independent Grocer, Wal-Mart, and from Thrifty Foods, still.

“We are also active recipients of products from the Fruit Tree Project run by LUSH Valley Action Society,” says Hampton. That organization has a “Grow a Row’ project, where local growers grow for us and donate excess garden produce to us. We sort all these donations on a daily basis seven days a week, 364 days of the year.”

The Comox Valley Food Bank also has donation bins in most of the large grocery stores, and has more than 120 cash donation jars placed at local businesses to solicit support. Donations from individuals and smaller retailers who do not have the contracts with the Food Bank are always accepted. Even as we are talking, a man walks in to drop off a box of granola bars.

Cash donations are used to buy staples and luxuries such as peanut butter if they do not arrive in a shipment. “When we don’t have enough of something we buy it,” says Somerset.

Since they receive monetary donations from a variety of places, adds Hampton, they try to spread the money around by making purchases from different retailers each time. Monetary donations can also be made at City Hall or mailed into the Food Bank directly.

Manager Susan Somerset and President Jeff Hampton are tireless supporters of the Food Bank’s mandate to reduce hunger in the community. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Manager Susan Somerset and President Jeff Hampton are tireless supporters of the Food Bank’s mandate to reduce hunger in the community. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The Comox Valley Food Bank not only distributes food bags but also helps feed people in the community by passing on some of these donations to other charities. “We send a lot of food to the school systems for their breakfast program,” Somerset says. Large items are typically passed onto the soup kitchen because the Food Bank is unable to separate bulk items.

“We try to recycle everything,” says Somerset, noting that rotten, unfit, and stale products are passed along to local pig and chicken farmers as feed.

Hampton has an intimate connection with the Food Bank. Aside from his years of service, his stepfather and mother were two of the first five founding members. “When the Food Bank started there were no rules and regulations, so over the years I’ve just learned through trial and error,” he says. “We’re fairly tolerant, but we’ve had one or two people who have come in and been verbally abusive, and we asked them to get gone. But other than that, we try to help everyone.”

Hampton reflects on some of the more interesting donations over the years, such as canned seal meat and freeze dried dehydrated ice cream. A couple of men wanted meat and all they had was the seal meat, so Hampton said, “Before you condemn it, you have to try it.” The men enjoyed it so much they returned for more, but by then the Food Bank had run out. That was in 1984.

“When we started the Food Bank ‘83/’84 I quickly found out people would get jealous if someone had something different,” says Hampton. “So we try to make them as even as possible, to create as much harmony as possible.”

A typical bag of food includes three cans of soup, one can of beans, one can of tomatoes, one can of vegetables, one can of fruit, one can of tuna, and one package each of oatmeal, pasta, rice, tomato sauce, granola bars, cookies, crackers and sugar. They also add one pound of hamburger meat, one quart of milk, half a pound of margarine, juice and a choice of coffee or tea, and peanut butter if it is available. Breads and baked goods are also added after as there is often a selection to choose from, and produce bags are made up and kept in a cold room to be given out as well. This week the additional bag includes potatoes, carrots, beets and apples, with butternut squash and pomegranates upon request until they run out.

“Today we got a big load of yogurt,” says Somerset. “Tree Island Yogurt—it’s really nice—that will be nice for tomorrow.”

The Food Bank also has items like baby food, diapers, formula, pet food, paper towels, women’s menstrual products, toothpaste, shampoo and other limited toiletries should someone have a need for these things.

While the application form does ask for information regarding residency address, number of adults in the house, source of income and proof of children’s age with a copy of their birth certificate, they do not ask for an individual’s actual income. “We try not to turn anyone away,” says Somerset, who recognizes that some people are intimidated when they first walk in.

“It’s really, really tough seeing young mothers with kids, struggling. You can see they don’t want to ask for help,” she says. “We’re here for a sympathetic ear. We have places we can refer them to.

“I was a single mother once too—it’s hard, very difficult,” she adds, as she proceeds to pack a bag with some fish, yogurt, produce, almond milk and granola bars—for me, and for my children.

This is when the true gift of the Food Bank hits.

This woman standing in front of me is non-judgmental and only wanting to help, and she is offering me a bag of food so that I can feed my family for the next few days. I may not need it. I have a tight budget with no wiggle room and I am going into debt each day as I transition from one career to another, but we have dried food in the cupboard. However, it is not beautiful halibut or gourmet Tree Island Yogurt, so I swallow my resistance and accept what she offers.

The last few volunteers are heading home for the day. They smile at my armload. One of them stops and touches his heart. “I see so much kindness come out of here,” he says. “I can’t even say it because I get emotional. But this…” and here he points to Somerset, and wells up.

All three of us are caught in a moment of what it means to be part of the Food Bank, to give to and accept help from one another in a time of need, and to reach out to others in our community, feeling what is it to provide support and to be supported. It’s a beautiful thing.

The Comox Valley Food Bank’s distribution area encompasses the east side of Vancouver Island between Cook Creek in the south and Oyster River in the north, including Hornby and Denman Islands. They are located at #1-1491 McPhee Avenue in Courtenay and are open Monday-Wednesday 9:30am-12pm, and Fridays from 9:30am-11am for drop-in service. On Thursdays they are open for food distribution from 9:30am-1pm. For more information call 250-338-0615 or visit