‘It gives you wings’
When a busy neighbourhood centre had to close as part of London’s COVID-19 response strategy, many White Oaks residents were cut off from food and other basic needs. United Way funding helped bring the Emergency Food Cupboard back when the community needed it more than ever.
Times were already tough.
Before COVID-19, the emergency food cupboard at South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre served about 100 people a month.
Now, it’s 1,000.
“So many individuals are coming to us for the first time. People who were already facing barriers — poverty, hunger, mental illness, and social isolation — need even more help now,” says Nancy Needham, executive director of the South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre (SLNRC).
“You’ve heard over the years that many people are one pay cheque away from losing their home. COVID has made that real.”
Among the new visitors staff have welcomed parents with no money for groceries as they waited for government support and couples who both lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Many seemed almost “panicked,” by the time they arrived at the food cupboard, but still reluctant to ask for help.
They’d donated to food banks in the past but said they had never imagined they’d need to use one.
“If United Way didn’t fund a neighborhood resource centre, those new faces . . . they would be the ones that I would be most concerned about,” says Needham. “Food and basic needs are really a major problem in London.”
Just how vital the emergency food cupboard is to the South London community became painfully clear early in the pandemic when the City closed many of its buildings, including the SLNRC on Jalna Boulevard, and the organization had to move the food cupboard 14-kilometres away to the Northwest London Resource Centre in order to keep it open.
“It was really quite devastating,” Needham said. “People were saying things like “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my family.”
Then a grant from the Local Love in a Global Crisis community response fund organized by United Way Elgin Middlesex helped SLNRC move the service back to the neighbourhood. Since May 5, the emergency food cupboard has been operating out of St. Justin’s Parish on Jalna Blvd.
Staff instantly noticed the spike in demand. One four-day week after a long weekend, the cupboard served 198 people. With 10 times the number of people coming in, food donations from neighbourhood faith groups were no longer enough. Again, the United Way stepped in, facilitating a partnership with the London Food Bank, which now regularly supplies the cupboard with food.
“It makes me so happy to know that there are resources like this available,” one mom said during a recent visit. “Not just for me, for everybody. There’s a lot of people who struggle.”
She feels grateful to donors for the way her children’s faces light up when she brings home food from the emergency cupboard.
“As a parent, seeing that happiness in your kids. . .It gives you wings,” adds the mom, who also volunteers at SLNRC to “give back,” to the community.
The SLNRC, a United Way partner agency, has long been a hub of the White Oaks community. It’s fueled by volunteers — many of them former clients — and aside from the emergency food cupboard, it hosts a settlement agency, youth groups, community meals and classes on language, cooking, and parenting.
When its building closed temporarily in March, SLNRC moved services online to say connected with clients. But once word spread on social media, the organization reached even more community members who started accessing services for the first time.
“It is a world where so many more people clearly are living on the brink of poverty,” Needham says. “COVID has really brought that to light.”
And that’s a good thing, because it means people who have been struggling in silence now have a connection to emergency food cupboard to help them through hard times, says Needham.
“No matter what your age or your needs . . .If the families don’t have food, we’re in trouble.”