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Despite limited options, some food bank customers are able to choose what they want to eat.

There are several tables piled high with fresh produce—organic greens, apples, lemons and potatoes—a cart filled with bagels and bread, and more tables stacked with cans. Cans of soup, cans of tuna, cans of beans, cans of pasta—cans of just about everything that can be canned. And in the next room, there’s a walk-in refrigerator with a healthy supply of yogurt and milk. It could be a supermarket. But it’s not; it’s the Parker Street Food Bank.

Instead of picking up a pre-packed box of food, hungry Haligonians get to choose the items they take home with them when they visit the Parker Street Food Bank. Have an allergy to wheat? Not a problem. You can choose a package of oatmeal instead of that box of Shreddies. Your young daughter won’t eat canned corn? Again, not an issue. You can bring her home the food you know she likes—and eats.

This is the way executive director Mel Boutilier decided to run the place 21 year ago. Back when the Parker Street Food Bank, which now operates out of a spacious building on Maynard, was still on Parker Street. Back when the Parker Street Food Bank consisted of Boutilier, a one-car garage, and an increasing number of individuals needing a bit of help—a bit of food—to get them through the week. Two decades, two locations, and one fire later, Boutilier’s still the man at the helm. To this day, Boutilier insists that his clients—who come to Parker Street with so little—be given the opportunity to choose the food they take home with them.

“We do this for two reasons,” says Boutilier, who’s nattily dressed in a blue button-up shirt, a burgundy sweater, and a tucked-in tie. “It allows them to select only the food they know they’ll eat. And it gives them a little dignity.”

But not all food banks operate the same way. Gateway Community Food Bank gives each of its 25 clients a bag of pre-selected food. Marjorie (who asked not to be identified by her last name), Gateway’s administrative secretary, says even though their clients aren’t involved in the selection process, the small food bank is still able to cater to their clients’ needs. Each bag is packed according to a list provided by Feed Nova Scotia, an organization which networks with 155 soup kitchens and food banks across this province. The list is also based on the Canada Food Guide.

Individual needs are also taken into account. One woman, whom Marjorie sees almost every month, has diabetes; she receives a package of sweetener instead of a box of sugar in her bag (or two) of food. Families with infants receive packages of diapers. Clients who hint to Marjorie that they “don’t particularly enjoy creamed soups,” find cans of chicken noodle and beef barley soup in their bags.

But Gateway has had items—food—returned to them before. One client came back to the food bank with several unopened cans of vegetables in her arms; she brought them back so they wouldn’t go to waste.

The food bank at St. Paul’s United Church combines Parker Street’s “pick your own” approach with Gateway’s “pre-prepared” tactic. Dorothy Rudolph, a staff associate, says her clients call in with their “orders” on Tuesday afternoon, and volunteers prepare boxes of non-perishable goods for pick-up the following day. On Wednesday, the food bank user finds a box of food waiting for her, and a table stacked with fresh produce and baked goods for her to choose from.

If it was up to Rudolph, St. Paul’s food bank clients would be able to choose all of their food.

“It’s something we’ve thought about before. Unfortunately, that sort of set-up takes more space than what we currently have to work with.”

Space, resources, community support, and number of volunteers—these things determine how each food bank is run. While Feed Nova Scotia supplies the majority of these organizations with a limited amount of food (Parker Street, however, is not one), executive director Dianne Swinemar says the rest is left to the directors of the food banks to decide.

“Each food bank determines its own policies and procedures, based on the resources they have available to them,” says Swinemar. “They all do as much as they can, but often there’s not a lot of choice involved…” Swinemar pauses for a few seconds before finishing her sentence. “…and using a food bank, in itself, is not a choice.”

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