An article published on CBC‘s webpage reported that there was an increasing reliance of elders on Toronto food banks. The Daily Bread, the food bank featured in the article, tentatively explained that this growing need may be explained by factors such as stagnant incomes and surge in food and housing costs. That reminded me of my own experience as a volunteer in a food bank in France.
As a member of RECAA (Respecting Elders, Communities Against Abuse), I have always been interested in meeting all kinds of people, from different origins and various levels of income. So, when I retired and started spending winters in France, I wondered how I could replicate there my RECAA experience.
A French friend of mine said “Why don’t you volunteer for the Restaurants du coeur?” So, after applying and being accepted, I joined what is commonly known as the Restos du Coeur.
In fact they are not a restaurant but primarily a food bank, founded over 25 years ago by a well-known French performer, Coluche. He felt that French society was forgetting its less fortunate members and that being hungry in France was a disgrace. Born from a one-man idea, the network, which is staffed primarily by volunteers, serves over 1 million persons throughout France each year and is financed mainly through private donations, with a smaller participation from the French government and canned goods donations from the European community. The network is headquartered in Paris, has a departmental office in each of the 95 or so French “départements”, and local offices in towns and cities.
I volunteered once a week in the Restos du Coeur in a small southwestern French town for three years. The team was composed of 40 volunteers and our task was, on the one hand, to manage the physical aspect of the food collection and distribution (mainly handled by men), and the selection, and assistance to the 150 or so local individuals and families that qualified for assistance (mainly handled by women). The way the system works is that at the beginning of each winter, families come to the local Restos to register for what is called in Restos jargon “the winter season” (usually from the end of November to the end of March, which is crucial when you also have to pay heating bills). This assures them a steady supply of healthy food. Eligibility is based on family income and I was one of the persons assigned to analyse the applicant’s files. It seemed strange to me that accessibility is not immediate and unquestioned, but I later learnt that eligibility requirements are also applied in food banks in Quebec, except on an emergency basis. The poorest families could come back during the “summer season”, where the amount of food distributed was lower. One thing that struck me was how low family income had to be for a family to become eligible. I wondered how these families could manage even with the help they received. It opened my eyes to the extent and level of poverty which I had never guessed existed in France… a country which is renowned, I believe, for its social safety net.
The amount of food distributed varied according to family size. The principle was that each member of the eligible family would benefit from 6 full meals each week. A special allowance was made for babies and small children. So, each food group (including dairy, frozen meats and fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, canned items, dessert and bread) was placed on a separate table and the volunteers assigned to “la distribution” accompanied the family representative in front of each table, to assist them with selection and to ensure that they were getting the right amount (and not more!) of each food group. I volunteered for “distribution” and this is what I liked best because I had the opportunity to talk a bit with each person that was welcomed once a week. The clients came from all backgrounds: divorced mothers with children, older single men, women having lost their jobs or being sick, retired men and women with very small pensions, even young men without a job. It was disheartening to see how many people in that small community needed help, and sad to see how many of them were isolated. Many of them came to the Restos to spend fifteen-twenty minutes a week with other people, and then went back to being isolated, and this was particularly true of older people. The Restos fortunately had enough space to arrange for a small coffee corner with a few tables and it was very much welcome. I got to know a few of the mothers, and some of the Algerian ladies who barely spoke French.
In addition to food distribution, the families could receive other kind of assistance, such as referrals to various organizations. One of the volunteers even organized a painting class and we discovered real artists among our clients.
I loved my experience with the Restos. The team of volunteers (mainly retirees) was overwhelmingly convivial, kind, and unprejudiced. At the very beginning of my “job”, I went through a training session that emphasized the philosophy and principles of the Restos, the primary one being that volunteers should be non-judgmental and caring if they wanted to be part of that organization. My dearest hope is that I was able to convey these principles in my work, and thus foster “the culture of respect” so dear to RECAA.
Links to two Quebec food banks: