Donna Swarzynski, a former food bank user, knows what it’s like to experience food insecurity and need help. Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In 2022, more Manitobans than ever are reaching out to local food banks for help to get through these tough inflationary times. So far, the donations continue to meet demand.

Niverville Helping Hands

Helping Hands coordinator Larissa Sandulak says that the Niverville-based food bank began receiving a significant increase in food hamper requests long before this year’s Christmas season.

“Since the summer, we’ve had a 20 percent increase in families needing hampers,” says Sandulak. “Every week we have multiple new families getting in touch with us. This significantly increases the amount of food we require to keep up with the need.”

Sandulak is thankful for the various food drives and collection bins around town that have been keeping the pantry stocked. She’s hopeful that December’s collection efforts will be enough to fill the many Christmas hamper requests coming in.

“We will need the community’s continued support in the coming months,” says Sandulak. “Residents can leave donations in our bin at Bigway or make a tax-receipted financial donation on our website if they’d like to help us meet the increased needs.”

Helping Hands is also seeking groups, businesses, or individuals who are willing to sponsor a family in need this Christmas. As of December 1, there were still 22 families awaiting sponsorship.

IDC Food Bank

Suzanne Tetreault is one of three coordinators who manage the Île-des-Chênes food bank out of the rectory next to the IDC Parish. Due to a lack of space for large-scale food and toy storage, the food bank relies on sponsorships of families at Christmas as well.

In Ritchot, local companies have stepped up in a big way this year, reaching out to the food bank to offer sponsorship of multiple families at a time.

“We’ve given out the names of nine families, mostly those with kids,” says Tetreault. “So the [company staff] will be making their Christmas hampers and buying cute gifts for the kids.”

This generosity will mean the food bank can use items coming in from the local food drives to keep their shelves full, as Tetreault doesn’t see the need for food assistance going down anytime soon.

Tetreault and her team also witnessed a surge in hamper requests this past summer. They have been consistently filling 24 biweekly hampers in comparison to the average 17 hampers needed in the first half of 2022.

All recipients of food hampers this December will be receiving an additional gift certificate redeemable at the Red River Co-op.

Harvest Manitoba

Harvest Manitoba, once known as Winnipeg Harvest, is also witnessing a surge in requests for food aid like they’ve never seen before.

“Since last year around this time, the demand for food at Harvest has increased by 41 percent,” says Harvest’s Christa Campbell. “And the number of people with jobs who are accessing the food banks has increased by 50 percent. There is no precedent in our 38-year history for an increase of this size.”

Currently, Harvest Manitoba supplies food supports for around 90,000 Manitobans, almost half of whom are children. That equates to 12 million pounds of food annually.

To pull this off, says Campbell, it requires an ongoing army of faithful and generous supporters. To date, the support being received is still adequate in meeting demand.

Recently, CBC held their annual Make the Season Kind radiothon in support of Harvest. The project has raised $364,000.

Harvest Manitoba also provides food to many smaller food banks around the province when their own resources run low.

A Food Bank User Tells Her Story

Former Niverville resident Donna Swarzynski recalls with poignancy the memory of the first time she needed the help of a food bank to get back on her feet.

It was 2016. Swarzynski and her young daughter were enjoying the feeling of new condo ownership in Niverville and Donna’s career as a car sales consultant was going well.

One day, Swarzynski says, it all came apart when the feelings of deep sadness she’d been experiencing rose to the surface. Her doctor recommended short-term sick leave from her job, but the mental battle persisted and soon she found herself jobless.

Trying to subsist on health insurance payouts alone wasn’t enough and she had nowhere to turn for help. Her parents had died years prior.

She said it was a church acquaintance who suggested that Swarzynski take advantage of the services of Helping Hands. This was a first for her. She’d placed donations in the bin at the local grocery store before. Never had she considered she might someday need it herself.

“I remember pulling up to the [food bank] and feeling hopeless and so alone,” says Swarzynski. “I sat in my car for a few minutes before I had the courage to walk inside and ask for help. I remember walking up to the big brown steel door and starting to cry. I couldn’t believe I was in this position of needing help. I had always worked, since I was 14 years old. Never could I have ever imagined that I would be in need of help one day myself. As I started to walk down the stairs, with my head held down and with tears in my eyes, I looked up to see about six ladies smiling and welcoming me to Helping Hands. One of the ladies immediately came up to me and put her arms around me and comforted me. She was like an angel in disguise, giving me hope in what I felt was a hopeless situation.”

Swarzynski’s challenges didn’t end that night. She eventually found herself in a shelter in Steinbach until affordable housing was found.

Today, she has become a valuable volunteer at Steinbach Community Outreach, an organization whose mandate is to assist people experiencing poverty and lack of housing by providing food, shelter, clothing, and friendship.

One of her greatest joys now is being that angel in disguise for someone who comes to the Outreach for help.

“I feel like I’m able to empathize with people more,” Swarzynski says. “When I tell them that I used to be homeless, people’s eyes just get big and they can’t believe that [someone like me] was once in their shoes.”

It’s especially hard for parents, she adds, when they feel the pressure of needing to provide not just for themselves but the little lives that depend on them. Not to mention the extra dose of humility it takes to tell the children where their food and clothing comes from.

“I think any time of year is a hard time for people to ask for help, whether it’s Christmastime or not,” Swarzynski says. “It’s easy for people to naturally want to help other people, I think, but to ask for help is very difficult.”

For this reason, Swarzynski is glad to tell her story. She’s a survivor and she wants to help break through the shame so that others can become survivors too.

By Brenda Sawatzky, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Dec 06, 2022

This item reprinted with permission from   The Citizen   Niverville, Manitoba

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