Northern Wilds Magazine
Volunteers work in the Gathering Table distribution room. The Gathering Table, part of the faith community of the Anglican Church of Canada, provides community support year-round. | SUBMITTED
Along the Shore

Going extra for Christmas: Thunder Bay churches

Sharon Sparkes had a busy Friday morning in October. In addition to supervising the volunteers in the Gathering Table distribution room as they organized non-perishable food donations, she prepared lunch for those same volunteers. Like many church organizations in the Thunder Bay area, the Gathering Table, a faith community of the Anglican Church of Canada, is providing community support through the calendar year. Sparkes and the small group of volunteers are preparing for Gathering Table’s food bank opening on the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

Across the city, Redwood Park Church operates its own food bank twice monthly, serving some 100 families, according to Pastor Jay Ewing.

The Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship concentrates most of its efforts on the popular Empty Bowls/Caring Hearts campaign, although this initiative is not connected to the Christmas season.

What all three and many other religious and secular organizations are trying to do is to alleviate hunger in the community, a lack felt most often in the Christmas season. According to the Thunder Bay Food Bank website, over 100 households are supported on a bi-weekly basis, which translates to food for an average of 150 adults and 55 children. Obviously, statistics for the entire area would show many more individuals and families in need, and hopefully supported by the collective efforts of the organizations.

Back at Gathering Table, Sparkes’ husband Dale gets a phone call.

“The truck is on its way,” he tells his colleagues.

The Thunder Bay Regional Food Distribution Association (RFDA) calls itself “a food bank for food banks,” providing bulk non-perishable foods for groups like Redwood and Gathering Table, to name but two of dozens in the area. Soon, the rumble of a diesel engine outside the walls of the building announces the arrival of the RFDA truck. The driver swings open the doors of the truck’s cargo section, then clambers up to ready the palette for unloading. A few minutes later, the Gathering Table volunteers are bringing in the supplies on hand trucks. The distribution room very quickly becomes a crowded place.

“We get non-perishable food donations from the congregation here and Lutheran and Anglican churches,” says Sparkes. “The RFDA is our main supplier. We even get frozen foods. This Sunday—bison!”

“We have also served alongside Dilico (Indigenous child and family services) through the Christmas Wish Campaign and have done so for about a decade,” says Pastor Ewing of Redwood Park Church. “We plan to do this again this year, but have not yet organized it formally with our community (as yet).”

Gathering Table volunteers prepare to unload the RFDA truck. | SUBMITTED

“This year’s Empty Bowls brought in over $20,000,” says Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship member Angie Bach. “The proceeds go to Shelter House and the Thunder Bay Food Bank. During Christmas, we gather and donate small items to the Faye Peterson House.” The Faye Peterson House is a temporary shelter and service provider for persons and families fleeing from abusive situations.

While food security is an ongoing challenge for billions in the world, and thousands locally, the Christmas season highlights the special need for support for those living in insecure life situations. As December 25 falls on a Sunday this year, some food distribution dates have to be changed. As well, food banks that might normally operate bi-weekly will be closed.

“We want our clients to have food, enough to tide them over at Christmas time,” says Sparkes. “With Christmas on a Sunday, we would not be open again until the second week of January. That’s a long time for people to wait.”

To offset that time gap, the Gathering Table will open a little early this year, on December 18. All food banks will be providing extra supplies in addition to their regular offerings. Gathering Table, like many other food banks, tries to include special items, such as mandarin oranges and Christmas candies, along with staples like vegetables.

“We’re hoping to get some strawberry jam and hot chocolate, too,” Sparkes adds.

“There are other ways we have sought to serve the city over the years, including taking a special offering at our four Christmas Eve services each year with all the donations going directly to an organization we believe in,” says Pastor Ewing. “Last year we were able to write a cheque to Northwind Family Ministries which are making such an impact in Thunder Bay and the region.” Their 2022 beneficiary had not been decided upon as of this writing.

One of the casualties of hunger is personal dignity, a reality on the minds of all food bank volunteers.

“We always give our clients options over and above what is in their (individual) box,” says Sparkes. “Some have no stove where they live, or are homeless. We make sure we give them something easily opened with a can opener, or that doesn’t need cooking.”

Many food banks in the city are now logging two or more decades of operation, and the end of needing such organizations is not yet in sight. In the meantime, all involved try as best as they can to alleviate the effects of a difficult reality of needs not met.

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