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Lunch program shutdown leaves groups scrambling to help

Rising cost of groceries has some people having to weigh whether to pay their rent or buy food; 'This is a major crisis,' says local reverend
The Busby Centre on Mulcaster Street in downtown Barrie is shown in a file photo.

The Salvation Army's announcement today that it will no longer be able to feed people in need has left other social service organizations questioning when the government will step in. 

The Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission’s Community Meal Program will be coming to an end effective April 1. Officials say they will continue to provide their regular meal program for their emergency shelter residents, but can no longer handle the financial strain of feeding the thousands of other individuals each month.

“At its peak, the program served over 12,000 meals per month," the Salvation Army said in a news release. "In consultation with the County of Simcoe and other agency partners, financial support previously allocated to the Salvation Army Barrie Bayside Mission’s Community Meal Program will be distributed across agencies in Barrie to support multiple food insecurity programs in the community."

An emergency meeting was held over Zoom this morning by representatives from community churches as well as David Busby Centre executive director Sara Peddle. The group was discussing ways to help fill the gap left by the program's cancellation. 

With the meal program ending in just four days, Peddle said her team had to act fast.

“We’re ramping up right now and we are anticipating we will see more people for our outreach program. We are handing out food bags and lunch bags out of 88 Mulcaster St., from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, starting Saturday,” Peddle told BarrieToday after the meeting. 

Peddle said it was important to get involved not just for feeding people who need it, but also as homelessness continues to increase in the city. 

“This has been an important program for many years, but more so lately from a perspective of homelessness prevention because some people are getting these community meals so they can pay their rent,” she said.

The rising cost of groceries is no secret and it's having wide-ranging effects. 

"Those who are in a position of buying groceries and not affording rent will be very affected by this," Peddle added. 

In 2013, the County of Simcoe asked the Salvation Army to establish a Community Meal Program to support people living on the streets, initially providing 60 healthy meals daily.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Meal Program was expanded to meet the evolving needs and serve residents at other emergency shelters and warming stations. 

Grace United Church's Rev. Dr. Susan Eagle was one of the people on this morning's Zoom call. Eagle told BarrieToday the call was arranged after she heard about the program’s cancellation Monday night. Time was of the essence.

“What we were doing as churches was to see what possibility there was for us to collectively step up and help in this situation,” Eagle said. “There is an urgent short-term need for assistance, but after that there needs to be a long-term plan as well.”

While Grace United and other local churches are involved in other programs in the community, Eagle was asked if she felt that the issues being faced were more of a government responsibility rather than that of churches and other grassroots organizations.

“That was a big part of the conversation, because most of the churches did identify that what we are doing is a Band-Aid solution and the economy is such that we have more and more people falling into crisis and poverty,” she said.

“I can’t speak for every church on that call, but I know that there are calls across the province from the interfaith community to ask the government for help, because there are people who literally can’t feed themselves," Eagle added. "If they do, they then can’t pay rent. This is a major crisis.”

While it appears that the Busby Centre and local churches will step in and fill another gap in what should be a government issue, Peddle said she hopes all levels of government will get involved because she isn’t sure how many times others can step in with the current cost of living being what it is.

“This is an all-levels-of-government perspective; it's a larger conversation about community and how to help it. Inflation is kicking our butts and we’re not getting better-paying jobs, we’re not getting adequate social services, we’re not getting old-age security. None of that stuff is increasing to meet the inflation and nothing is increasing, but yet we are expecting people are going to be fine.”

The Salvation Army says it will continue to provide hope to the community’s most vulnerable through "life-changing programs" in line with its homelessness prevention strategy, which includes emergency shelter and transitional beds and their family emergency shelter program that comprises 12 off-site units.