Parents with Purpose: Food Bank Founder Holly Johnson

When Holly Johnson found out kids in her community were going hungry, she knew something had to be done. So, she rallied community in the small town of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and started the St Andrews Open Door Program, which discreetly distributes supermarket gift cards to people in need. Johnson juggles management of the project with a team of volunteers while running her own PR business and caring for her five children (one at university, and four boys aged 10 to 15 still at home). We chatted with her to find out more about the project, and why it’s important.

Why did you start doing what you do?

We were sitting down to a hearty meal of pork chops and mashed potatoes one night and my son, who was 10 at the time, said, “Mom can I tell you something?” I was concerned and asked what was going on. One of his friends from school had told him he hadn’t had food in the last two days. I took a deep breath, and said “Okay, what are we going to do about it?” My son said, “Well, we’re going to help him.” And I replied he was absolutely right.

How did you help?

Now the first thing I did, of course, is approach the mom, because you know sometimes kids can talk — maybe it was not as bad, maybe he just doesn’t like what was on the table for supper, you never know. She was brave enough to admit that the family were struggling. I did some private messaging on social media, got a group together on Facebook, and we helped this family — for about three months — to get back on their feet. Then that mom said to me “You know, I’m not alone.”

I was living in a bubble. We live in a small, affluent resort community, and poverty in Saint Andrews, like a lot of communities, is definitely invisible. These people absolutely needed a voice. So, we held a community meeting. Our first attracted 50 people, which is a big turnout for Saint Andrews. We started the conversation and said, “Okay, what are we going to do? Are we going to launch a food bank? What’s it going to look like?” Someone in the community heard about a grocery store gift card program running in Ontario and that sounded like a fit for us. With the cards you can shop as anyone would. They aren’t marked in anyway, they’re just regular cards so you’re not identified as a food bank client.

We open once a month in a space donated by the Wesleyan United Church, but we have volunteers on call during the rest of the month, so no one is stuck. If their need is an emergency we will meet them and provide them with gift cards.

Holly with one of the volunteers

I hear the program is successful.

We have close to 70 families and individuals registered in the community, so that’s not just 70 people, that’s 70 registered, so we have hundreds of people we’re helping now. And in a community with a population of 1800 that’s significant.

That must feel good.

Yeah, it’s my passion project. I’ve always wanted to feed people and see that people are fed, so it’s a good fit. The volunteers are phenomenal. I have newfound friends that never cease to amaze me. We have great resources with expertise here, and every dollar we bring in goes right back to purchasing the cards so we have no overhead costs, which makes us really unique.

It is so rewarding, but it’s hard because this is not something that’s fixable. When people say how’re things going, it’s not like a regular business where you say, “Business is booming!” You don’t want to say that. You don’t want to hear about kids missing a meal, or moms missing one so their kids can eat. It’s very frustrating and it makes your heart hurt when you think about how much people are genuinely struggling.

Why is this work important?

We don’t have a shortage of food in Canada, we have more food than we know what to do with, but people have a shortage of income to buy that food. We have clients who are seniors that live on $565 a month. That’s inhumane — it’s the only word to describe it. How can you have a roof over your head, heat, food in your fridge for 565 dollars a month? In communities all across Canada, people are going hungry. Something has to be done, so why can’t we be the ones to come up with a solution?


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