HUNGRY IN LAMBTON: An estimated 20,000 people in Lambton must decide between food and bills

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A 60 year-old patron waits for the Salvation Army Emergency Service vehicle to open.
The Independent presents a six-part series by Reporter Cathy Dobson and Photographer Glenn Ogilvie focused on the alarming number of rural Lambton residents who increasingly cannot afford to feed themselves and their families. 
Over the last nine months, we investigated how food insecurity is impacting our community and talked to the people who regularly access more than a dozen area food banks. We also examined the challenges faced by the extraordinary volunteers and agencies providing free food to a wide cross section of adults and children.
Here are their stories.
Petrolia residents wait for the Salvation Army Emergency Service food truck to open.

Tough Choices

Cathy Dobson/For The Independent

They arrive on foot, sometimes using their walkers or wheelchairs, and seem to come from every direction when the Salvation Army food truck rolls into the parking lot behind St. Paul’s United Church in Petrolia.

Between 30 and 40 people are there twice a month to accept a free lunch from the food truck.
They are among an estimated 20,000 residents in Sarnia Lambton who do not have enough money and must decide between paying bills and buying food, says Krystal Thomson, the Salvation Army’s manager of community and family services.

Survey results released this spring by the Lambton Health Unit confirm nearly 16 per cent – about 20,000 – living in Lambton are food insecure. 

They are frequently local residents whose rent eats up much more than 30 per cent of their income. Lambton’s critical shortage of affordable housing creates critical levels of food insecurity, according to the Nutritious Food Basket Report. 

It’s been a little more than a year since the Salvation Army received a phone call from Lambton OPP who found people living rough in an area known as The Flats in Petrolia’s Bridgeview Park.
“They saw homeless living in that wooded area and called us to bring out our food truck for them,” said Thomson. 

Salvation Army manager Krystal Thomson and worker Jamie Thomson.

That’s developed into a twice-monthly stop in Petrolia that not only provides meals but also creates connections so people who are couch-surfing, homeless or can’t afford nutritious food, can be referred to other support services.

“If you are in need of a meal, come get a meal, and we may be able to help you with emergency dental, rent and utility arrears, or hearing aids. There’s a lot that we do at the Salvation Army that sometimes people don’t know about,” said Thomson. 

No questions are asked, a point that one woman stressed is very important to her and others who go there.

“This place is wonderful,” she said.  She also gets food virtually every day from the Petrolia Community Refrigerator, which is located behind St. Paul’s Church on Petrolia’s main street.

“I honestly don’t know where I’d be without it and I hear a lot of people say the same thing,” said the 60 year-old woman who preferred not to give her name. 

For almost three years, she’s relied on the Petrolia Food Bank, the Refrigerator program and the Salvation Army food truck.

She’s grateful but she’s also ashamed.

“I feel embarrassed,” she said.  “People look at you and think, oh, she’s on welfare and they look down on you.”

Accepting food is hard for her after working a physical job for more than 20 years and not accepting charity most of her life.  But arthritis is crippling her and work is impossible now, she said.

“The cost of living is so high and I only have ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program). It’s not like I have anything to pay for food.”

Heather Wilson at the Salvation Army Emergency Service vehicle.

Another Petrolia woman, Heather Wilson, says she regularly visits the food truck and gets groceries from the Refrigerator.  Wilson is a friendly woman with a direct gaze and a big smile.

“I was born with a learning disability and I don’t work anymore. I come here and I talk to some really nice people and get whatever I need,” she said.

There was a time that Wilson worked at Tim Hortons. Later she was a sidewalk cleaner. But living with a learning disability her entire life has limited her opportunities.

ODSP pays her $1,000 a month, she said. The cost of living has significantly jumped in the last year.  If one thing goes wrong – like the time her refrigerator broke down – Wilson has no money at all for food.

Single men and women, couples, older folks, and a growing number of families with children, access both the food truck and the Petrolia Community Refrigerator.  Food insecurity is directly tied to a lack of affordable housing in Lambton, said the Salvation Army’s Brad Webster.

Salvation Army captain, Brad Webster.

“The ask is more than we have right now,” he said.  “The need is a lot higher than the donations and unfortunately that limits what we’re able to do.”

Demand has also shot up for the Petrolia Community Refrigerator (PCR) program that operates from an insulated shed next to the church and is part of St. Paul’s outreach.

As many as 50 people a day get meat, produce and canned items from the unique program initiated in 2021 by local resident Larry Leckie.

Leckie and his volunteer team have started an aggressive food rescue program that collected nearly 13 tonnes (28,000 pounds) of food last year from overturned trucks and local grocery stores. Rescued food can range from anything from fresh fruit, nearly expired meat, bread, and even frozen seafood.

Heidi’s Your Independent Grocer in Petrolia plays a big role in providing the Refrigerator with recovered food, Leckie said. 

“Heidi (Soudant) started to freeze the meat for us. That’s made a big difference,” he said. 
Besides food rescue, many food drives, individuals and groups donate food to the program, which is getting more use by the month.

“We started with a trailer in the parking lot and I figured maybe five or six people would use it,” said Leckie.  “But, oh man, it started and it never stopped. Once the word spread, people came from all over.”

Numerous agencies also collect food and meals from the Refrigerator and deliver them to clients in need.

On the day of our interview, a box of food was requested by a Victim Services worker who was assisting in a domestic violence situation.

Larry Leckie, founder of the Petrolia Community Refrigerator and Ruth Syer, founder of Ruth’s Place.

“So you’ll see people in some very nice cars drive up and get food,” Leckie said. “It is often the Red Cross or a caseworker of some kind.

“We have people who see the nice cars and question what’s going on.  But you don’t know the story, so it’s important not to judge.”

Before retiring, Leckie was a supervisor in transportation logistics and is really skilled with statistics and co-ordinating the PCR’s team of 43 volunteers, says board member Ruth Syer. 

He’s the one who tracked the 27,512 meals made with rescued food last year and calculated that feeding people, rather than throwing that food out, diverted 125 tons of greenhouse gas from the  landfill.  It’s just another interesting aspect of the work they do.

Syer is also the founder of Ruth’s Place, which teaches life skills – including cooking – to people with developmental challenges. They frequently use the rescued food to make meals that are available free to PCR clients.

Demand will only grow this year as the cost of living rises, say Syer and Leckie.

“Food is up 5% this year and last year it was up 10%,” he said.  “I’ve had people say we are attracting the homeless because of the refrigerator. But homelessness is a result of the economy.

“When people are marginalized, when they lose their jobs, they lose their house… It becomes a matter of humanity to provide food where we can.”

Next Week in The Independent’s six-part series Hungry in Lambton from Reporter Cathy Dobson and Photographer Glenn Ogilvie read how a rural food bank meets surprising demand and the stories of the people who depend on it.