It’s cold inside the small white building that sits on the edge of the parking lot at the corner of Main Street and Black River Road in Oxford but Rufus Black welcomes me warmly. I’m sure everyone who comes through the door receives a warm welcome, regardless of why they are here.
“I think it’s 12 years since we built this building,” says Rufus, chair of the Oxford and Area Food Bank Association, as he beckons me into the recently expanded space. “But we operated over in South Oxford for the first winter then on Main Street for awhile so it’s been 13 or 14 years.”
Rufus was one of a group of people who responded when the need for a food bank was first identified.
“There was a need and everybody knew about the need because people were going to the town and looking for help. The other food banks were talking about it, too.”
Since the food bank in Oxford first opened in 1998, it has served 240 clients, some of whom are regulars “because of their situation,” Rufus says, but others come and go according to seasonal work or a temporary layoff. The area served is the school bus district, which ranges from Westchester to Collingwood to Leicester and towards Pugwash.
“One of our board members greets the clients, fills out the paperwork and goes over all the rules,” explains Rufus. “We have a couple of volunteers to do the packing.”
Standards in every box, whether for one person or six, include a pound or two of ground beef (which comes from a local supplier) and a loaf or two of bread which is donated by the local bakery at the end of every week.
“It would cost us a lot if we had to buy all that bread,” Rufus admits gratefully.
There are certain things the food bank must buy itself: milk and eggs, the beef. Other supplies must be bought if they are running out and Rufus says they are always short of the basic items like tomatoes and canned fruit, among other things.
He lists the usual needs as he looks over the shelves.
“We go through a lot of potatoes so we have to buy bags of them all the time. Cereal is something we barely get by on all the time; we never have any surplus. Tea isn’t usually a problem but coffee, we often need that. And peanut butter. Sometimes we have to buy that.”
Every two weeks, the food bank also receives supplies from Feed Nova Scotia which has a distribution system set up all over the province. But, according to Rufus, the majority of the food donations come right from this community.
“There’s only once or twice during the year when it gets pretty scary, when we’re buying more and more. It’s usually the early fall when there’s more demand, and in the spring. We don’t know why. There’s less food coming in and more going out. This past fall, we were spending more than $1,000 a month and going into our operating fund.”
Surprisingly, the usual budget for food items is $1,000 a month anyway because there are items that need to be purchased. So cash works as a donation just as well as cans.
“Our community here has been really good,” Rufus is quick to state. “I do like to let the community know how much we appreciate the support because in general, our support meets our demand without any waste.”
While some food banks around the province are reporting as much as a 70 percent increase in the use of their service, Rufus says local demand is rising but at roughly 25 percent a year.
“It’s been a gradual increase but no great amount. The demand might be close to double what it was when we started. But the demand is steady. We have more families now than originally. An awful lot of children. Probably 55 or 60 children on our client list.”
That’s why there are treats that come off the Feed Nova Scotia truck, treats like chocolate bars and chips.
“There’s always some that appreciate this so much,” says Rufus. “They have kids but not the income. They’ve been sick or lost their job. You can tell how much they appreciate being able to come to a food bank and get some help. We hear complaints about people using the food bank about wasting their income in other ways but that’s not our business. There’s a family, there’s kids and we’re here to help and do what we can. And we are blessed when we do it.”
After 14 years of dedication to the food bank and at the age of 78, Rufus says he sometimes asks himself why he keeps doing it.
“I came across a scripture passage that reminded me. Deuteronomy 15:7-11. It talks about being blessed when we give. I volunteer in a lot of different things and can be too busy. My wife doesn’t drive and she’d like to get out and do things but I don’t have a lot of time. I’m going a lot. But what I’ve learned is that it’s better to give than to receive. That’s what that scripture passage says, that God looks after us when we give to others. That’s what keeps me going.”