Need for low-income nutrition program remains, but Manitoba pandemic funds about to dry up

A food program designed to help low-income Manitobans make it through the pandemic is about to end despite the fact community groups say the need for such programs remains.

Provincial funding for the home nutrition and learning program, first announced in June 2020, is set to end June 30. Community organizers say that leaves recipients of the food program in a precarious position.

“We’re devastated,” said Marion McKenzie, operations manager of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg. “We understand, but we’re still devastated for our community that still requires this program in order to make ends meet. 

Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre and Good Samaritan in Brandon have provided food bundles through the program to community members during the pandemic.

McKenzie said the pandemic program meant families were receiving fresh fruit, vegetables, milk and more on a weekly basis that made a big difference — through delivery and pickup services.

Though pandemic restrictions are gone, the need remains and has even grown amid rising inflation, said McKenzie.

“If anything, this pandemic has amplified — magnified — the need our community has for food and income,” said McKenzie.

“They still struggle, they don’t have enough money coming in to meet the growing costs of food right now and some families are still worried to leave the house.… COVID isn’t over.”

Barbara McNish took over as executive director of Brandon’s Samaritan House Ministries in April 2020. McNish says the provincially-funded nutrition program was never expected to last, though she agrees the need for such services has grown over the years amid rising costs. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Barbara McNish, executive director of the Brandon-based food bank Samaritan House Ministries, said that the program funding is set to expire comes as no surprise.

She said the funding was in part meant to help families access nutritional food their children would normally receive through schools, which were locked down during the pandemic.

McNish said she believes there will be some nutritional programs operating again in schools, such as the kids’ snack and breakfast program Food for Thought.

But she said in the 35 years since Samaritan House opened, the need for essentials has increased.

Demand rising

McNish said conceptually, food banks were originally designed as a stopgap means of providing families with food for short stretches of time. Now they’ve become a lifeline.

“Unfortunately, the need is so great that food banks have sort of become some people’s grocery stores and that was never how it was supposed to operate,” she said. “The bigger picture … is that families are struggling.”

Brandon families are aware the program is coming to an end, said McNish. They have also been informed that they can utilize the traditional Samaritan House food bank, though they may not have consistent access to some items such as peanut butter, eggs, yogurt and certain produce that they were getting weekly through the pandemic nutrition program.

“It is heartbreaking, but at the same time, I did understand from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be an ongoing program,” she said, adding other donors and partners continue to support Samaritan House.

‘Deep-seated systemic issue’

McKenzie said the province has been a great partner of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre through this program and has extended it before.

Marion McKenzie is operations manager of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg. (CBC)

But she suggested Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre will have to lean on its community partners for additional help to tackle things like food insecurity amid rising inflation costs in the absence of the program.

“It’s going to be tough for families to deal with, but we’re not going away, we will continue to connect with these families and see how we can assist them,” said McKenzie. 

“This is a deep-seated systemic issue — not just in our community of Winnipeg but our province and really across our country.”