‘We’ve got to be that stable force for them’
Seneca graduate works to keep food bank open during COVID-19
April 2, 2020
A Seneca graduate at the helm of one of Canada’s largest food banks has been “burning both ends of the candle” to help keep people from going hungry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neil Hetherington, CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, has had a few emergency meetings with his staff since early March as health officials suggested people prepare for an outbreak by setting aside a week’s worth of food and medicine.
“It’s dramatic and daunting what’s going on out there,” said Mr. Hetherington, a graduate of Seneca’s Building Construction Regulations Administration program and winner of the 2018 Premier’s Awards for Business. “While I’ve dealt with other stressful situations before, this is a different level of stress. If our operation ceases, tens of thousands of people don’t eat in Toronto. These are the people who are the most vulnerable sector and we’ve got to be that stable force for them.”
With food bank use on the rise and the average client having $7.83 per day left after housing and other necessities, Mr. Hetherington says setting aside a week’s worth of food is simply not an option for them.
In addition, as some people with more means have been stockpiling, he says it could mean that there wouldn’t be enough food and supplies for those in need.
“The rate of increase in food bank use went up seven per cent from last year to this year,” he said. “And just last year alone, there were more than a million visits to food banks in Toronto.”
In the last few weeks, Daily Bread’s main location has seen a 53 per cent increase in visits. To keep the operation going while ensuring the well-being of its clients, volunteers, supporters and staff, the food bank has set up a field hospital tent outside its building in Etobicoke. Food hampers are transferred from warehouse to tent through a conveyor belt for client pickup, allowing for safe distances.
Of their 14,000 volunteers a year, only regular volunteers are being scheduled to come in.
“We have about 50 staff and for many of us, working from home isn’t an option so this is a way to keep the distance between staff and food bank users,” Mr. Hetherington said. “What we want to do is make sure that the food in the warehouse gets out and that new food can be delivered to replace it.”
Did you know?
With campuses closed and classes taking place online, Seneca and its food services provider Aramark have donated $5,000 worth of milk products, fruits, vegetables and deli meats to the Food Bank of York Region. The products came from all four of Seneca’s main campuses.
Mr. Hetherington counts himself among the lucky ones. “I’m well fed and taken care of and I have a home to go to,” he said.
And as he faces the leadership challenge of how to motivate his staff to do more when they have personal fears and anxiety, he says he feels “uplifted” to have an incredible team.
“I know that’s a contradiction to what is going on right now, but my staff are rallying together and the city is offering to help and people are offering to make donations,” he said. “There’s something about difficult situations that brings people together.”