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By the author of the FREE online course Growing Self-Sufficiency: The Whole Picture
More and more people are facing significant financial struggles that are making it difficult to buy enough food. If you are in that situation, this article is for you. While there are many resources that are known to be helpful for folks during difficult times, such as local food banks, there are also many informal, or unpublicized, sources of help. In my own life, during difficult times, I have found a great deal of hope through the kindness of strangers helping others in need. It is my desire that this article will help some folks find food and a similar kind of hope.
This article will offer ideas on how to access both food banks and other “hidden” possible sources of food if you are finding yourself short on money for basics. You will notice that I stay away from government-sponsored programs and focus on some of the expected and unexpected creative sources for help. I think that most folks are familiar enough with these or know where to find out more information if they need to. Although the resources I describe are local to me, I am hoping there will be similar supports or others in your area.
Tips for maximizing your benefit from food banks
Clarifying Access Policies: If you are really in need, being able to access more than one food bank can be a big help. Within a 20 to 30-minute drive of where I live, there are at least four or five food banks available in small villages. As far as I am aware, none of them have a residency requirement that would not permit someone from a neighboring village to seek help.
I have heard in the larger city around an hour from here, being a resident of that city may be required, proven with identification. Our local townships all have directories of these food banks online. If you are in need of food through a food bank, it could be worth your time to clarify which one/s you qualify for and how often you can access them. Who knows? A few phone calls may lead to doubling your access to food support this month.
Prioritizing Your Access to Shopping Type Food Banks: What do I mean by that? Many food banks only offer a pre-packed box of items, which is selected based on how many people in the household. If you have a special diet or are in need of baby foods, for example, this lack of flexibility may mean you end up with items that you cannot eat or use.
In our area, one food bank is a “shopping” type of food bank, where you get a certain number of credits and can use them in different areas of the food bank, like frozen foods, pasta/grains, fresh dairy items, and canned goods. Each client is allowed a certain number of credits, depending on the size of his or her household.
If you are fortunate enough to access a “shopping” type food bank, make sure you understand how many credits you get and where you can spend them. Don’t be afraid to ask some questions before you begin shopping. Are there any “free” items available that don’t require credits? You may be able to freeze some of these or save them for weeks when you have more need.
In my research for the article, I was told by volunteers at our local “shopping” food bank that pantry staples are accessed much less often than prepared foods. For this reason, they offer things like bags of beans and rice for very few credits. By choosing unprepared foods like that, you could actually get much more food for your household for one trip to the food bank.
One village around an hour from here does not maintain a food pantry. Instead, clients are given vouchers to shop at the local grocery store. There is another food bank around 15 minutes from here with a similar program. If you have unique needs or want to maximize the food you get by buying completely unprocessed foods, it is worth trying to locate a food bank with a similar approach.
Non-food bank sources of food
Community Gardens: This time of year, we have community gardens sprouting everywhere in our region. Within the same driving distance, there are at least four. One of them is connected with the food bank I described above. Another is located at a local community health center. All of them are often short of volunteers. Locating a contact for gardens like these may be difficult. If you see one in your area, you could simply stop by and ask who is in charge and how you could get involved. For a minimal investment of your time, you can help the group maintain the garden and reap the benefit as the garden grows.
If you have physical challenges, there may be tasks for you, too. One community garden I participated in had a wheelchair-accessible raised bed. Perhaps you could prepare a snack for everyone on a workday. You will never know if you don’t ask!
Churches: One church in a local village offers a fund for families in crisis separate from its food bank service. Another church is well-known for being willing to jump in if a family has a sudden, unexpected financial need, such as a broken washing machine in a low-income household with young children. In my own experience here, I have seen that churches vary in their willingness to reach beyond the boundaries of their own members with kindnesses like this. Through word of mouth and by asking, you could identify some crucial help for you and your family.
Church-run Thrift Shops: Only about 15 minutes from where I live, a local church runs a thrift shop next to the grocery store. In there, you will find relatively low prices for items in need, such as basic kitchen items like dishes, and a huge range of children’s items like clothing, cribs, and toys. To a large extent, these items are priced based on people’s ability to pay. As well, the church has an emergency food bank pantry available right in the thrift shop.
Informal Food Banks: In our area, there are two of these informal food banks. One is in the entranceway of our local community health center. There is a small table and a sign that invites people to “leave what they can and take what they need.” I generally see several cans and boxes available when I enter this health center.
Similarly, our local post office has one in the main area where people access their mailboxes. A used outdoor magazine box is designated for non-perishable food items. If such a service doesn’t exist in your area, perhaps you could find a way to create one? If you are receiving items from a “pre-boxed” type of food bank that you cannot use, this would be a great way to share them with others.
Volunteering for Food: Most food banks in our area are run by volunteers and would welcome another pair of hands on deck, so to speak. In my experience, volunteers may be offered some bonuses in gratitude (this may depend on the program!). For example, in one food bank where I volunteered in a large city, volunteers were offered some special items after a shift that there were not many of. One night, we were offered a beautiful frozen fish!
In the church-run thrift shop I described above, all staff are volunteers. For each four-hour shift, they are offered a delicious bag lunch that includes a meat sandwich with real cheddar cheese. In addition, they are able to select a certain amount of the thrift shop merchandise for free as “payment” for their shift.
Community-Health Centre Support: In a previous article, I have described the potential benefits of cooperative food-buying groups. Our local community health center has a budget to cover the cost of a Good Food Box for folks who are in need. This provides a huge boost for any household, with the many fresh fruits and vegetables it contains.
Help is available, often in unexpected places
With our food dollars shrinking, many households need to find assistance to buy their food. Have you ever been in this situation? Could you see yourself trying any of the ideas for the help offered here? Do you have an idea you can share with us? Please tell us in the comments below.
Colette is passionate about sharing her knowledge of thrifty living and self-sufficiency. She has developed her skills in self-reliance living in the suburbs, the city, and more recently, on her own Half-Acre Homestead. Colette lived five years completely off-grid and without running water in an eight by 24 foot tiny home while designing and building her own 18 by 24-foot eco-cabin. Her website, Half Acre Homestead is attracting followers from around the world who want to become more self-sufficient. Colette invites you to stop by the Homestead and check out all of the great resources including the practical How To Guides, A Tiny Home Resource Center and her organic gardening stories on her blog. She shares her wholistic model (body/mind/spirit) for achieving self-sufficiency in her Free Course, “Growing Self-Sufficiency: The Whole Picture.” Stop by the Homestead today to register free of charge!