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Hungry for change

Michiko Campbell's Christmas dinner at Albuoy's Point has become a popular annual event for those who cannot afford their own festive meal (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

By certain measures, Bermuda’s economy is on the road to recovery — but for some sections of society the patient remains as sick as ever.

The Royal Gazette visited the island’s newest feeding programme to speak with guests, and asked charity workers for a progress report on how the economy is impacting those at the bottom of the food chain.

The clear verdict was that the ranks of the very poor continue to grow.

“There’s a big divide,” said one of the more than 100 people who turned up at the Grateful Bread dinner offered last week at St Andrew’s Church Hall.

“Today it’s like it’s only the rich and the poor,” said the woman, dining with her one-year-old child beside her.

“The other classes in between are disappearing. But I think there are a lot of rich people that would like to donate.”

The needy are “not all homeless”, she added.

“There are people here who are working-class poor. The need is definitely growing. More Bermudians are displaced from work daily. My daughter has been looking, and there is none out there, especially for locals.”

She added: “My daughter’s the type of person that wouldn’t want to be seen here. So, I’m getting food to take it to her.”

Bermuda’s gross domestic product rose consistently throughout 2015 and early 2016, although it fell by 2.2 per cent taking into account inflation in the third quarter of last year.

Craig Simmons, the Bermuda College economist, has argued that while GDP is suggestive of the island’s overall health, it should be treated with caution as it can be pushed up by pay increases for high earners. There has been no such fortune for many of the attendees at feeding programmes, whose faces have become familiar over the months.

“You see a lot of the same people,” the woman said. “Although, tonight, I see a lot of new faces.”

Asked how long she had come to programmes like the Grateful Bread, she replied: “It’s been quite a while. I wasn’t always in this condition. But I like the spirit here. I’m a person that’s very spiritual. These people are here for a good reason.”

The woman we spoke to was far from the only guest at the dinner last Thursday night who was collecting a meal to take to family members in need.

While the island’s ailing economy might be turning around for some, she expressed little hope for the sector of society represented in the church hall.

“It’s like with the America’s Cup. They are saying it’s going to make all this money. But that money isn’t going to trickle down.”

The Bermuda Government has repeatedly stated the showpiece sailing event will stimulate the economy and provide jobs. Although sceptics have claimed the benefits will not be far-reaching enough, poll results have shown the Bermuda Industrial Union’s threat to jeopardise the Cup was extremely badly received by all sections of the community.

Judging by the number of food operations, the need for economic rejuvenation is serious.

Grateful Bread organiser Juliana Snelling explained it was set up “by friends who are very fortunate to never have to worry about whether we can afford the next meal for us and our families”.

It comes shortly after the First Church of God launched a discount grocery initiative by bringing in its own food containers to serve hundreds of families.

Other groups involved in feeding the poor include the Eliza DoLittle Society, Family Centre, the Salvation Army and the Coalition for the Protection of Children.

A spokeswoman for the Eliza DoLittle Society said the helping group’s food bank in Warwick helped mainly seniors, with “a number of persons collecting on behalf of families”.

“Our mandate is to rescue food and redistribute it to other organisations that serve the hungry. On a regular basis we are at the Cathedral, working with our sponsor HSBC and the church to cook and serve food to the hungry.”

Some of the clients who show up in Hamilton were “a bit younger, and more males”, she said. But volunteers saw many of the same at both locations.

Asked if need was on the rise, she said: “We see a growth in the number of seniors needing assistance, and are working on the relaunch of a programme designed for them.”

While the society was not in any position to evaluate the divide between rich and poor, she said the group did, on occasion, cater to clients with jobs.

An 83-year-old man at the Grateful Bread event, who has attended such events for nine years, since the death of his wife, said the need had “definitely grown” — among seniors especially.

“A lot of people don’t have their children at home to care for them,” he said. “They really appreciate the help.”

Older people often face challenges getting about, he said: “I’m in the family forum at Family Centre and I have a van to give my services. I’m only one, but one is better than nothing.

“I got into it more in the last five years, because people need help going to the doctor or the dentist.”

He also attends charitable events for his own needs — “not every night but when I use up what I have”.

He agreed that many of the same faces can be seen at different events. “Some have fairly good jobs, but don’t make the amount they need,” he added.

One woman said she had only recently had to rely on feeding programmes after struggling with addiction.

“At first, I was a little shamed. I come from prominence and I thought I would never find myself here. It’s been a very humbling experience — I am in recovery now. I have a good network behind me. I used to feel like I was carrying my burden alone; I didn’t realise there are others struggling. It’s not a black and white thing, it’s a people thing.”

On the topic of seniors, she said: “I’ve seen a lot of older people coming out that I haven’t seen before. That worries me a bit. We are a proud society, especially old folks. I would like to see more of the people who paved the way being taken care of. A lot of them can’t get out or their grandchildren have relocated and they’re forgotten. So I encourage people to be their brother’s keeper.”

She added: “I see a lot of people that work coming through here. That shows me that incomes are not what they used to be.”

Guests had high praise for the volunteers at the Grateful Bread. One elderly man said seniors often were unable to come out.

“There are a lot of older folks that don’t come,” he said. “Youngsters come and then bring the food back to them.”

A woman nearby was giving her contact details to volunteers, in a bid to obtain work.

“It’s definitely grown,” she said. “Older people, young people. I’ve been coming to these things for three years now, since I lost my job. I’ve got five people in my family; only one of them working. We’re all trying to find jobs.”

A 58-year-old woman said she had always known where to find a meal if she needed it.

“Since my husband passed away, I have had to fend for myself,” she said.

“The poor will always be among us. If there’s a need in December, there’s a need in any other month.”