NHL Lockout Hurting Canada's Food Banks

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NHL LOCKOUT FOOD BANKS
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The NHL lockout is hurting Canada's food banks who often see a windfall from NHL games and sports bars. | AP

MONTREAL - The National Hockey League lockout isn't just frustrating fans of Canada's national sport — it's also putting a pinch on some food banks.

That's because food drives usually conducted during the holiday seasons by teams and sports bars aren't happening in some cases.

In the past, sports-themed restaurants and bars have hit up patrons for canned goods or some other foodstuffs in the charitable efforts, helping to boost food-bank supplies as demand increases.

But with no hockey, fewer people are coming out and some businesses are feeling the squeeze on their bottom line.

"We've received calls from 23 different businesses, mostly sports bars who last year collected food for Sun Youth and this year, because of the strike, they have to lay off people," said Tommy Kulczyk, director of emergency services at the Sun Youth community centre in Montreal.

"They're not in the mood to do any kind of collection."

He also noted that wives of Montreal Canadiens players had in past years organized a successful food drive at a Habs game tapping a potential 21,000 donors.

"It's not going to happen this year."

The lockout doesn't appear to have affected organizations equally. Dany Michaud, director general of the Moisson Montreal food bank, said his organization hadn't been hurt by the lockout but he knew it had cramped others.

"I'm sure it's having an impact."

Even if there's no food collection at games, the Montreal Canadiens say they will still participate in a "Secret Santa" program that provides gifts to needy children.

Donald Beauchamp, a spokesman for the Canadiens, said there has been a "tremendous" response within the organization to the gift program this year and that players' wives who are currently in town are also contributing to it.

In Ottawa, the lockout is also having an impact. The Kanata Food Cupboard, which is near the arena where the Senators play, was cited in news reports saying the lack of hockey-related economic activity was bringing them new customers.

Food banks receive a steady stream of visitors all year but say they notice a spike in requests for help around the holiday season. Since 2008, organizations have reported seeing more people with low-paying jobs and seniors asking for help and not just the unemployed.

Food banks in Western Canada's NHL cities say they aren't noticing an impact from the hockey lockout.

Kathryn Sim of the Calgary Food Bank said there hadn't been any noticeable effects on her organization and said the numbers of people using it had dipped slightly. She said while there were might be a couple of events during the year at the Saddledome arena the food bank does more work with football's Calgary Stampeders.

"What we're wondering though is if we're going to see people who provide services within the Saddledome who are going to start coming in as clients because of their reduced work," she said, adding that so far to her knowledge that hasn't happened.

Marjorie Bencz, executive director of the Edmonton Food Bank, said the group is satisfied with efforts so far but still has work to do.

She said her organization had received a $12,000 donation from Northlands, which owns the Rexall Place where the Edmonton Oilers play, and that the food bank was at about 42 per cent for its food donation goal and 30 per cent of its monetary donation target. The goal is $1.1 million and 235,000 kilograms of food.

Chris Albi of the Winnipeg Harvest food bank said that, while people miss the Jets, no decline has been noticed.

"The generosity is still pouring out from the fans as it always has," she said.

She referred to a Fraser Institute survey on Thursday that suggested Manitobans are the most generous contributors to charity in Canada.

"We've been very, very blessed to have such a wonderful community here," Albi said. "They really do pull together at any time of the year."

Winnipeg Harvest is one of the food banks in Canada that has seen an increase in demand for its services. Albi said that's not just because of economic conditions but also because welfare rates have not increased and people are strapped for cash.

A lack of affordable housing often means money for food will go for rent instead.

She said the Winnipeg Jets had taken part in the meal share program, where surplus food is delivered to soup kitchens, and canned food donations had been solicited at some games in the past. The lockout nixed any efforts like that this Christmas season.

"For sure, that is going to have a small effect but at the end of the day the fans still donate, they still come down, volunteer, do all the good things. That is something that we should all do to help each other out."

In Vancouver, the Canucks organization says its members have volunteered at local charities, including the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, and joined other groups in October to host a dinner for 1,400 people from the city's Downtown Eastside.

Canucks Sports and Entertainment also hosted a holiday dinner on Wednesday for families from Canucks Family Education Centre, which works to improve literacy levels.

The Toronto Maple Leafs did not respond to a request for comment.

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