"We can't afford to stockpile food"

Poverty in a pandemic

A raised-bed garden

The past year has been difficult for many of us. But for those who were already marginalized, the impact was greater, and the recovery slower. As we look back on a most unusual year and look forward to a more hopeful future, the stories and experiences we hear from our program participants and partners challenge us not to forget those who continue to be in need.

“Prior to the pandemic, I was actually working at two part-time jobs.”  says Rachael * a Circle of Friends participant. Circle of Friends supports people transitioning into stable housing with regular social visits. “I was getting extra hours and I was actually considering looking into getting my EA [certificate], which is an educational assistant.”

Then, in March of 2020, the day before the pandemic was officially declared, Rachael was in a serious car accident. “And that in itself has been a whole huge headache. I now use a walker. I'm still in a lot of pain and there's issues with my leg, which have not yet been determined. I now have forearm crutches, and I'm hoping to go back to work in September, but I'm finding out tomorrow or next week, whether I am or not. I mean, it's based on what my doctor [says]”. The insurance claim process has also dragged on, causing more stress.

The last 18 months have been uniquely difficult for Rachael, who had already suffered a brain injury in the past and, as a result, found “screen time” painful. This was, of course, a serious handicap when the pandemic shut down all in person visits and all socializing and meeting had to be done virtually. “I find that very, very, very difficult,” says Rachael.  “You need the connection with people, but then it's also not helpful because it's the wrong way…. It kind of gets you, it's very easy to get into a rut mentally and emotionally.”

Someone holding a large head of cabbage
Rachael with robust cabbage from the community garden. Photo coutresy of Rachel (last name withheld)

At one point, one of Rachael’s personal support workers contracted COVID-19 which meant Rachael had to self-isolate for two weeks. This, combined with her mobility challenges from her car accident injury, exposed one of the most precarious parts of living on the margins: food security. Food security is a big deal for Rachael, as she was already an advocate for community food security, helping to organize a community garden as well as a food forest in Kitchener.

She believes that everybody has the right to nutritious, natural foods that contribute to good health. Unfortunately, those on the margins, especially during desperate times like the pandemic, are limited in their choices.

Harvested vegetables on a table
This bountiful harvest from a community garden that Rachael manages was donated to organizations that feed food insecure people in Kitchener. Photo coutresy of Rachel (last name withheld)

“I had no money, so they were trying to set me up with food from the food bank,” explains Rachael. “And I was supposed to get [a box of food] that had no processed food and no bread. And they sent me breaded cutlets and a whole bag of bread.”

This was problematic for Rachael as she had discovered that eating whole, natural foods was essential not only to her physical health, but her mental health as well.  
“If you're low income, it's really easy to buy junk food.  And our body craves it…I used to have severe depression and the reason I’m even functioning the way I am now is by eating as naturally as I can”.    

A packed refrigerator
Rachael's fridge on a good day, packed with a week's worth of natural, healthy foods. Photo coutresy of Rachael (last name withheld)

But here is where the invisible barriers of poverty begin to show up. While many were stockpiling food, or using online grocery services during the pandemic, many people couldn’t afford to. Even if she could afford to stockpile and had the transportation to carry it all,  Rachael, and many others who are in shelters or supportive housing, do not have full sized refrigerators. She can only store one week’s worth of fresh fruit and vegetables at a time which made her weekly trips to the Kitchener Market essential. But then the Kitchener Market, too, was shut down due to the pandemic.

It just feels like you climb one hill and then there's a bigger one. And then there's a bigger one.”


This meant even less autonomy for Rachael and relying on others who may not understand the nuances of her budget and diet. “I'd give someone a grocery list and this person meant well, but they came back with, I think it was two squash and some tomatoes. It cost $17. And for me, that's a lot of money,” recalls Rachael. “That's like a week of groceries and it's just like, okay. Maybe to them, it wasn't a big deal. Right? It's just been really challenging. It just feels like you climb one hill and then there's a bigger one. And then there's a bigger one.”

There have been silver silver linings. On two separate occasions she was given an entire roasting chicken from generous strangers. House of Friendship staff have come through for her when she was low on food. Her occupational therapist got her the walker and forearm crutches to help her get around. A generous vendor at the Kitchener Market (after it reopened) gives her a good deal on vegetables. And Rachael’s Circle of Friends volunteers continue to support her, both virtually and in person.

Rachael and others like her who have been marginalized face many systemic issues that need time and sustained advocacy to resolve. Groups like the Participants Advisory Group (PAG) supported by MCC, are composed of folks with lived experience in homelessness, are doing some of that work by advising regional and municipal leaders on better policies. But ordinary citizens can also make an immediate impact with “street level” kindness, compassion and generosity. After the most difficult year in memory for many of us, we cannot forget that those on the margins need more support than ever.


*Name has been changed for privacy reason.

If you would like to put your compassion into action, consider volunteering with the Walking with People in Poverty program.