Beyond the food bank: Discussing food insecurity and poverty in Revelstoke

Even as the pandemic eases, the Community Connections food bank remains busy. With an ever-increasing cost of living, how can Revelstoke make the lives of the less fortunate easier?

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File photo: Community Connections Food Bank Community Outreach and Development co-director Melissa Hemphill keeps spirits high amongst staff and volunteers. Photo: Bailey Gingras-Hamilton

This article first appeared in print in Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine’s July 2021 issue. Read the entire e-edition here:

Walking downtown on a Friday afternoon, people stream into cafes and restaurants with packed patios and full tables. Nearby, the sound of items scanning echoes through a grocery store. Further down Second Street, just outside the busy core of Revelstoke, a line-up forms at the Community Connections outreach building. A team of dedicated volunteers prepare the food bank for the next two hours of distribution. Bread, milk, produce, canned goods; all are counted and ready to go. For those facing food insecurity, this team is a lifeline.

Data collected by Community Connections reveals that the food bank saw three times as many visitors in April 2020 compared to March 2020. From May to October of 2020, the food bank averaged 1,833 visits per month. Fast forward to May 2021, the food bank had 1,108 visits, with 162 households registered for the program. Although the numbers have decreased since last year, they are still above pre-pandemic numbers. This reflects an influx of poverty in Revelstoke, both systemic and situational.

Food and Outreach coordinator Bailey Kublick carefully tends to a plant donation. Photo: Bailey Gingras-Hamilton

The widening divide between the rich and the poor

As explained by Erin Maclachlan, Community Outreach and Development co-director at Community Connections, situational poverty is different from systemic and generational poverty.

“When you think of generational poverty or systemic poverty, those are scenarios that are long-lasting and really difficult to break out of. Situational poverty often comes around major changes in your life or events that happen that are beyond your control,” Maclachlan explains. As predicted by the definition, the pandemic has driven rates of situational poverty upwards. Maclachlan notices a blend of situational and systemic poverty in Revelstoke, with overall poverty rates increasing.

“A lot of people talk about how it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of homeless people or people struggling in our community, but that’s not the case,” says Hannah Whitney, Community Connections Food and Outreach coordinator.

In a story that echoes across Canada, the pandemic has widened the gap between rich and poor. Statistics Canada reports that 46 per cent of Canadians with incomes under $40,000 said their income had worsened between the onset of the pandemic and October 2020, compared to 27 per cent of those with incomes over $40,000.

“The pandemic has really pushed on a lot of cracks,” Maclachlan observes. “I see that in Revelstoke, there’s a huge group of people that have a lot of money and buy lots of fancy houses and ski. And then there’s a demographic that we serve that are really struggling and have nothing.”

Working behind the scenes of the busy distribution center is Erin Maclachlan, co-director of Community Outreach and Development. Photo: Bailey Gingras-Hamilton

Going hungry amid a housing crisis

When financial strain hits, the difference between negotiable and non-negotiable expenses arises. Rent and utilities are examples of non-negotiable expenses, which are typically prioritized. Food, however, is negotiable.

“There’s levels to food insecurity,” says Melissa Hemphill, who works alongside Maclachlan as a co-director. Ranging from mild to severe, the spectrum encompasses forced dietary changes, prioritizing who eats first in a household, and not being able to eat at all. Community Connections helps anyone within the food insecurity spectrum. This number is growing as the cost of living increases in Revelstoke.

Low vacancy rates, paired with increasing demand, has driven housing prices to historic highs. This past year alone, the average real estate sale increased 7.6 per cent to $734,000. As a non-negotiable expense, housing prices directly affect someone’s ability to feed themselves.

Reducing food budgets has dangerous consequences that can perpetuate cycles of poverty as well. Community Connections works alongside doctors to understand the social determinants of health. Income and social status, employment and working conditions, access to services, and physical environment all affect physical health.

“If you’re not able to feed yourself well, then you’re more likely to suffer illness and not be able to work. Whether that’s an occasional shift, or you’re getting into chronic illness, which is then going to make you more food insecure. It’s self-perpetuating,” explains Hemphill.

Community Outreach and Development co-director Melissa Hemphill keeps spirits high amongst staff and volunteers. Photo: Bailey Gingras-Hamilton

Consequences of a ski town economy

While Revelstoke’s wealth of recreational activities brings many benefits to the town, it also has consequences. Hemphill and Maclachlan note the many homes that sit empty months of the year, while people struggle to find a place to live. In general, tourism pushes the price of many things up.

Hemphill believes that Revelstoke, as a community, needs to start holding people accountable for how their actions affect others.

“I don’t understand what’s wrong with staying in a hotel for your holiday, and why you need to buy a home in the community where you sometimes holiday. It sounds lovely for those who can afford that, but what’s not being considered in that decision is what impact does this have on the community,” Hemphill emphasizes. She points out that tourism has an almost ironic effect on the overall economy.

“It has a massive impact. It is decreasing the housing stock, which is pushing the price of everything available up, including rent; therefore, leaving the options very slim for that lower-income bracket. Yet the services that folks would like to see when they come here are going to be provided by those people who now can’t afford those rents.”

Rent is not the only thing holding people back from living comfortably. According to Hemphill, Community Connections statistics indicate that even homeowners with stable employment are facing food insecurity.

“That, to me, reflects community accountability and what we’re doing as a community to make homeownership or home stability and employment able to meet people’s needs for wellbeing,” says Hemphill. “Seeing people struggle, even though they are employed and in good housing, it makes us question, ‘Okay, what’s going on here?’”

Fresh produce loaded with vitamins can help combat some of the social determinants of health. Photo: Bailey Gingras-Hamilton

Finding solutions in Revelstoke and beyond

Addressing the rising costs of living can seem like a daunting, even impossible, task. Especially when this story is being told across British Columbia, and the rest of Canada. However, the stakes are too high to let the problem go unaddressed. By attending community plan focus groups, Hemphill has seen firsthand the desire to settle down and raise families in Revelstoke. She has also seen how difficult it is to do that.

“It’s going to take guts to do what we have to do. But I think there is a great amount of community will to do it,” says Hemphill. “People want to see solutions. They want to see bold moves. They want to see a government that isn’t afraid to do what its citizens want them to do.”

There are success stories that Revelstoke can look to. Whistler, another booming resort municipality, is an example. Administered by the Whistler Housing Authority, properties sit on land owned by the municipality and are approximately half the price of an average house in the area. They are only sold to people living and working full-time in Whistler, and buyers cannot own any other property.

Investor taxes, stricter controls on vacation homes, and investments into affordable housing are also ideas that Hemphill and Maclachlan pitched. However, there is a larger picture to consider. As mentioned earlier, even people with stable housing and income can struggle to put food on the table.

Volunteers prepare for distribution, ensuring that every package can fuel and feed each recipient. Photo: Bailey Gingras-Hamilton

“We don’t live in a food desert. There are lots of opportunities. It’s really a financial issue. And so while we can work on food security and the food system as a whole, and that helps support those who are food insecure, food insecurity is an income issue and needs income-based solutions,” explains Hemphill.

These income-based solutions have worked. When the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) began, food bank visitations dropped. One positive takeaway from this pandemic is the expanded understanding that situational poverty can happen to anyone. Looking at larger income-based solutions can be daunting, especially if provided by provincial and federal governments. That is why Hemphill emphasizes the importance of on-the-ground, municipal policy.

“As a local government, I hope that we can develop tools to incentivize people to ensure that the community is sustainable. And by community I mean all demographics,” says Hemphill. She stresses that bold action is required, otherwise we could lose one of the most important parts of this town.

“No matter who you ask in Revelstoke about why they love Revelstoke, the very top of their list, if not number two, is the community. That’s people. It feels for those who live here that this community is for sale in terms of who can be here, but people are not for sale.”