An $839,555 surplus might sound like a lot for a small-town food bank, but the volunteers who manage the Vankleek Hill Food Bank, which is part of the charitable organization called Community Assistance Fund Enterprise (C.A.F.E.), see a different future than most of us. And that future includes a lot of people who won’t be able to make ends meet. The working poor–the number of people relying on food banks for at part of their food supply– is definitely going to increase, they say.

The C.A.F.E. has been going through its own changes in recent months. A new board was in place in late November of last year and a new Community Outreach Director (Genevieve Paquette) is now in place to answer questions from the community. Carol Hall has continued on, in charge of finance and the group is in need of a secretary.

New board president and chairperson Heather McLaughlin says that bylaws are being drawn up for the organization to improve transparency by defining roles and responsibilities.

The Review met with new board members several weeks ago to discuss what has changed — along with more changes yet to come.

In April 2022, The Review reported on the financial situation of area food banks. It was reported that the C.A.F.E. had a cash reserve of $421,814 in cash, bank accounts and short-term investments as of September 30, 2021. It also had $417,741 in long-term investments, for a total of $839,555. It had total revenue of $57,889 for that 12-month fiscal period, with $44,065 in expenses.

But La Société de Saint Vincent de Paul organization in Alexandria, had the most assets of area food bank organizations, with $868,921 in assets as of December 31, 2020.

A key change has been the thrift shop and food bank’s relocation to 124 Main Street East. With its own storefront, the thrift shop business has taken off, under the management of Eleanor Gardner, thanks in great part to the larger location which can display not just more clothing for sale, but now includes a lot more kitchen items and household goods, all of which are donated by the community to be sold. The proceeds are all used to support the work of the food bank. The food bank itself was formerly located at Knox Presbyterian Church while the thrift shop was in a small location on Home Avenue (in a space behind Jade Garden).

Having more space has made a “complete difference” according to Gardner.

Jane Fantie and her husband, Mike McGurk are the food bank directors. Fantie is a staunch advocate of community outreach and ensuring that people know the food bank is there to help.

Things have changed, she says. The cost of living means that many people are struggling, even if they are trying to hide it.

“Double-income families are one furnace breakdown away from not eating,” she says.

Working on the front line at the thrift shop, Gardner attests to the needs in the community. A ‘help shelf’ at the thrift shop contains items that people might not be able to afford and that shelf empties every day that the thrift shop is open, she says. (The thrift shop is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 pm and is open Wednesday evenings from 5 pm to 7 pm.

McLaughlin says that the large surplus in the food bank’s coffers is due to unbelievably generous bequests of money, earmarked for the food bank.

It is thanks to those bequests that the food bank was able to afford the higher rental cost of a new location, which included the consolidation of the food bank and the thrift shop in the same location.

The group refers to the circular economy of food and clothing donations which goes right back into community support.

“Everyone pulls together, from support from the schools, to when we make a call to offer winter jackets,” Fantie says.

But while they hand out business cards with the food bank contact info, the board is looking at what lies ahead.

McLaughlin says that the group would like to purchase a building in order to have a permanent home for the food bank and thrift shop.

“Our vision is having a certified kitchen where we can prepare meals — we want to create resources for people. Our plan is not to sit on the money,” she said. (During the pandemic, the Hawkesbury Rotary Club used funds it received to hire a catering company to prepare meals and it then undertook to deliver the meals to people in need who, in many cases, were seniors or were unable to circulate in the community during times of lockdown or due to health concerns. They also donated meals to the Vankleek Hill Food Bank which used them to help more seniors.)

The demand for help from the food bank has tripled, they say, meaning that the food bank will not be going away any time soon. In 2019, the food bank organization assisted about 11 families (or 25 people) per month; in 2022, there are 32 visits per month (about 73 people). These numbers do not include those assisted as part of the annual Christmas Basket campaign.

When food baskets are prepared for those who need them, recipe cards are now included with ‘cheap eats’ to encourage people to cook, Fantie says, using ingredients like rice and lentils. Teaching people how to stretch their food dollars is part of the food bank’s mission.

“Someone’s got to work at breaking that cycle,” Fantie emphasizes.

While the group prepared 86 Christmas baskets this past season, the food bank is literally growing in other ways. From its pilot six-plot community gardens project, which it launched last year–and thanks to a grant, this year’s project includes 16 plots.

The group cannot say enough about the collaboration of the community. From support provided by Vankleek Hill Foodland, the LCBO, to help from Good Food Garden, L’Orignal Packing and local farmers, Fantie says that she is constantly amazed by people’s generosity.

But further collaboration is on the agenda, she says. She wants to connect with food growers and hopes that all the area food banks can connect with those who have an overabundance of locally-produced food. The food bank is currently collaborating with Prescott-Russell Community Services, which allows them to offer a delivery service so that food bank clients without transportation can have their monthly baskets delivered to their doors.

For her part, Gardner says she has an incredible group of volunteers helping at the thrift shop. They make it fun, she emphasizes.

Plans for the future intersect with the group’s current mission as they speak about the work that they do.

But perhaps Fantie sums it up best.

“It’s really simple. We just want to feed people,” she says.

Donations of food, clothing and household items are welcome at the food bank during its opening hours. Charitable donation receipts are available for donations of more than $10.

E-transfers can be sent to: [email protected] or cheques can be dropped off at The Review offices at 76 Main Street East in Vankleek Hill weekdays between 9 and 4 pm or can be mailed to: Community Assistance Fund Enterprise, P.O. Box 23, Vankleek Hill, Ontario, K0B 1R0.