Which is what it takes to change a culture as negative and engrained as food banks
“You never know what someone has been through,” Ben MacMichael says, and that is what guides his treatment of everyone who comes through his door. They are people first and everyone has a right to food. Ben is the former manager of the West End Food Bank and now manager of the new Peter McKee Community Food Centre on St. George St. in Moncton.
“I have a big mouth,” he tells us, meaning that he’s an articulate advocate for the poor, loves to talk with everyone, exchange ideas and engage the media. But it also means that he is willing to say what is wrong with the system and keep saying it until things change.
A few years ago when the area food bank system obviously needed an overhaul — apparently there was a lot of infighting and many weren’t speaking to one another, Aaron Shantz, Our Food SENB’s coordinator who was tasked with getting everyone in the same room, said Ben took over the task. Aaron said, “Ben wrote a really long, mouthy letter telling them that if people wanted to raise old issues or just argue they weren’t welcome at the meetings.” The new food centre run by the Food DEPOT Alimentaire is the end result.
That Food Centre is part of Ben’s ministry and exactly where he wants to be. “I want people to leave here holding their head a little higher,” he says.
Agonizing over enough
He strives to provide good food for the clients of the food bank, as much fresh produce as he can and the best quality staples he can lay his hands on. “I will never put an item in the basket that I wouldn’t eat myself and I never hedge on baby food.” However, daily he is faced with the same dilemma every food bank manager who is dependent on donations must face. Sometimes you just have to give what you’ve got. People have to eat and a processed meal is better than no meal at all. He says, “The only time I ever agonize is when I know there should be two more bags to this order.”
The secret to keeping volunteers
Ben has no problem attracting and keeping committed volunteers which attests to his leadership skills, something he is proud of. There were many volunteers at the West End Food Bank the day that we visited and many of them, if not all, moved over to the new Food Centre on St. George. He said the secret is to put people in positions where they will succeed.
He has volunteers from all walks of life like a former nurse who was interested in promoting good nutrition and a young man who was there to get experience with people to put on his work resume. They were working happily and efficiently with little or no supervision and the whole operation seemed to run like clockwork. In fact, in the last six weeks of the West End Food Bank’s life when he was tied up with organizing the new place, Ben confides that the volunteers kept the place running smoothly. “They didn’t even need me.”
The big leagues
Although the new Food Centre opened its doors in May, it will not officially be opened until September. Back in March the plans for the new Food Centre were nearing completion and Ben was excited which was obvious in the way he sketched out the floor plan for us. But time and again he mentioned how many more clients he would then have to serve.
We also noted his personal connections with his clients and that he often refers to them as my people or my families. We wondered if he was going to be able to keep all these new people in his head. “I’m not good with names,” he said, “but I’m usually good with faces. I can usually remember something about them from a conversation when we were carrying on.” The layout of the new Food Centre was designed to play into that. He has a window onto the main floor and there will be a designated space where there will be coffee and snacks and chairs so he will be able to sit down with people at least a few times.
Normalizing the experience
Normalizing the food bank experience for people living on low incomes starts with humanizing the system, says Ben. He already knows that treating his people with respect comes naturally to him. “All the inclusive stuff, the people stuff, I feel that is the gift God gave to me.” The trick is to build it into the culture.
They have introduced appointments over the traditional drop-in format. He says this helps everyone including his families who know they have a spot reserved for them when they get there.
He also insists that equality is a given. “Everyone who comes in will be treated the same,” he says, meaning no favouritism. “The food bank staff shouldn’t have to like you for you to get an even share.”
But there is still a certain decorum that must be present for everyone to feel it’s their centre, whether they are clients, staff or volunteers. On the day we visited the new centre — a huge space with an immense amount of light coming in the windows and the walls painted beautifully bright colours — he told us how he had already had to set a client straight. The client who had been a patron of another food bank was letting off a string of “f-bombs” in the waiting area. Ben explained that that language might have been alright elsewhere, but it wouldn’t be here. Ben admitted that he wondered how the confrontation was going to play out, but the client accepted it and the new culture began to take hold.
Everyone welcome at the new centre
The first stage of the new Food Centre will be the basics — food bank and thrift store and a community garden and places to chat and drink coffee — but the next will be tearing out walls from the huge gym bathrooms to make a teaching kitchen where courses that anyone can attend will be held. Absolutely everyone will be welcome.
Ben said his dream is that when you see the people waiting at the new bus shelter the city will be building outside the centre, you won’t know why they’re there. “They could be there for the food bank, they could be there for the thrift store, they could be here for the community garden, they could be there taking a cooking class,” he says. It will all be just a centre built around good food.