HUNGRY IN LAMBTON: ‘It’s a struggle for everyone’

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At 49, Brenda Hart, wants to work, but her body won't let her. She and her family depend on food programs, like the Petrolia Community Refrigerator.
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.

Stigma around who uses food banks isn’t fair, says grandma

Cathy Dobson/For The Independent

Brenda Hart wishes she could work. At age 49, her spirit is willing but her body is not.

No doubt, a paycheque would help put food on the table for her two adult children and two grandchildren who live with her, but she has been unable to work since 2011.

“I worked retail until my health got so bad I had to go on permanent disability,” she says while taking a few items from the Petrolia Community Refrigerator.

These are challenging times, Hart says, readily agreeing to talk about her family’s dependency on food banks and Petrolia’s Community Refrigerator. There’s a stigma that needs addressing, she says.
Hart has painful neuropathy in her hands and feet. Her 28-year-old son has a learning disability that keeps him from holding down a job. Her daughter, 24, just had a baby and won’t be in a position to work for a while yet.

They all live together in a two-bedroom house in Sarnia where the rent is $2,100 a month.
Since the Hart’s doctor is in Petrolia, they stop at the Community Refrigerator whenever they have an appointment. 

Hart says they only take what they need and sometimes give back when the food bank gives them items they don’t generally consume. 

The day we meet her, she’s there when the Salvation Army food truck has pulled up alongside the Refrigerator. For the first time, the family gratefully accepts some prepared meals to go.

“The Refrigerator program is great,” says Hart. “We’re here once every month or two when we see the doctor and we really like that there’s no big lineup or wait.”

Brenda Hart,49, at the Petrolia Community Refrigerator.

Today was her three-day-old grandson’s first check-up. He sleeps quietly in his car seat next to his mom while his grandmother collects the food.

Making ends meet has been much more difficult since Hart’s fiancé died a few months ago. He worked full time as a mechanic but passed away suddenly in January from an embolism.

Hart says his death means she increasingly relies on community food banks and the Petrolia Community Refrigerator to ensure everyone eats.

“With my fiancé’s income, it was okay. But I have a full house and it’s not easy now,” she said.

She feels judged by some people who don’t understand the challenges faced by her family.

“It’s like they say we’re too lazy and don’t want to work, but I wish I could,” she said.
“I enjoyed working when I could. I do see people who can work and don’t, and here I want to.”

She says she tried pizza delivery thinking it would get her off her feet more than working as a cashier. The money was good but repeatedly getting in and out of a vehicle became physically too much and she had to give it up.

Now she is collecting $1,100 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program.  That leaves her $1,000 short on her rent and unable to pay for utilities, gas or groceries. Her children pitch in with their social assistance but it’s still not enough. 

“So they force people to live together to try to make ends meet,” said Hart. “And it’s only a two-bedroom house, not a giant place, you know.

“So why isn’t the government increasing ODSP?” she asked.

This year, her visits to the food bank and the Community Refrigerator are becoming more frequent.
“I’ll just pop in here and see what they have.  If I don’t see anything I need, I leave it for the next person.

She sounds cheerful and she’s clearly delighted by the new baby.  But losing her fiancé has been difficult both emotionally and financially.

“Paying the bills will be hard, at least until the lease is up, but honestly, I don’t think we’ll find anything cheaper.

“It’s a struggle for everybody.”

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.