Audrey knows the taste of powdered milk and sugared cereal. It leaves a bitter taste in the 54-year-old Halifax woman's mouth. Audrey's grocery budget for her small family is about $230 a month. With two sons, one of them school age, it's hard to make ends meet.
She's been on disability since she herniated three discs in her back almost 10 years ago. She's a positive person and always replies that her day has been "wonderful," no matter how it went. But sometimes those words don't sit right in her stomach.
"You're not eating chicken, you're eating chicken wieners," she says. "How can you tell your children that the world is a good place when they've had to eat Kraft Dinner for 30 days straight?"
December is the busiest time of year for food banks. Audrey has visited at Christmas; not every year, but often enough.
"Certainly, it is a time when families really struggle," says Feed Nova Scotia's executive director Dianne Swinemar. "It is the one time of year when there's a sense of acceptability. That it's OK to put your name forward and ask for help."
Overall, food bank use is up across the country, according to a recently released report from Food Banks Canada. In Nova Scotia, usage is up by 11 percent over last year.
Audrey says she's been all through the social assistance maze. She often takes on the role of helping friends work through the system, trying to get help. She agrees that this year has been a bad one.
"I'd say in most respects it's getting worse for everyone," she says. "I don't speak for myself, I speak for all those that are unfortunately in the same situation as I am."
With this increase in demand, there's always a need for food, says Swinemar, but what's even more useful is financial support.
"The food side of the story has been strong," she says. "It's the financial part of the organization that tends to be the weaker side of the organization. So while we can get $15 million worth of donated food, if we don't have the financial support to ensure that we can get this out to our agencies in a timely fashion, then that becomes problematic."
Christine White likes to take part in the effort to get the food out at Christmas. This is the third year she has organized a group of her friends to sort food at Feed Nova Scotia's Burnside warehouse. The first year, White remembers walking in and being blown away by the piles of boxes and cans.
"It's amazing how generous Nova Scotians are when they're donating to the food bank," she says, adding, "That's probably only a small proportion of the food that is needed."
That's true, says Swinemar.
"I would venture to say there are many, many families---too many families---that can't wait a month, that are in fact coming back to the food bank at least twice a month," she says, referring to the one order per month policy that some food banks use. Those food banks simply don't have the staff to meet the higher demand.
Swinemar asks people to remember to donate nutritious food to meet the demand: low-sodium soups; proteins like canned meat and peanut butter; pasta; beans; and non-sugar-coated cereal.
"My guidelines are very simple," says Swinemar. "I always say to people, 'If you were going shopping for your children, what would you feed them?'"
Audrey agrees. "The food I eat at home is based on whatever is on sale," she says. "It's based entirely on whatever I can get with the budget that I have." However, she knows what it's like to call the food bank when Christmas blows that budget out of the water.
"There have been occasions when the tree was pretty bare," she says.
"I would call on them to see if there was anything they could do to help provide Christmas for my two boys."
To volunteer at Feed Nova Scotia, call 457-1900.