By Jessica Lovell
Wellington County was one of a number of areas outside of Toronto that was given grocery gift cards to distribute this week as part of a relief initiative by the provincial government. But far from the run on cards that was seen in Toronto, locally they’re not going like hotcakes.
“We’re hopeful that we’ve done our best to get the word out,” the County of Wellington’s director of Ontario Works, Stuart Beumer, said Wednesday afternoon after only 193 local families had been mailed cards.
By Thursday morning, that number had gone up to just 200, and the county had decided to extend the program by an extra day – to the end of day on Friday Jan. 10 – to ensure all the cards get distributed.
“We realize the program began on short notice and we want to make sure that everyone who is eligible for a grocery card is able to get one,” said Beumer in a news release.
The cards are part of a total of $450,000 in grocery gift cards that the province announced Monday would be made available to communities outside of Toronto that were also hit hard by the ice storm.
The relief initiative, which was funded through corporate donations and government matching, was criticized after people in Toronto lined up for hours only to be turned away when the gift cards ran out.
Wellington County received a total value of $61,400 in gift cards, which Beumer said the county hoped would help 650 households impacted by the ice storm. That’s 650 households of the approximately 16,000 in Wellington County that were without power for more than 48 hours, he said.
The cards were to be distributed by mail beginning at 9 a.m. on Tuesday Jan. 7 and ending at 4 p.m. today, Jan. 9, or earlier if all the cards were distributed. But uptake seems to have been a little slower in Wellington County.
Beumer initially said he expected all of the gift cards to be handed out by the end of the day on Thursday. But on Wednesday the local Ontario Works office had begun working on a strategy to make sure any leftover cards went to people in need.
“At the end of the program, we want to ensure that all the cards are given out,” he said, noting the cards will stay in Wellington County.
Because of the geography of the county and the time of year, local people were being asked not to drive to an Ontario Works office to line up for a gift card, but to apply by phone.
“We’ve tried to learn some lessons from the experience in Toronto,” said Beumer. “We’re mailing out the cards to them.”
To apply, people were asked to call social services at 519-837-2670, ext. 4794 – a dedicated line set up for the distribution of the cards. They would then have to “self-declare their eligibility for assistance,” based on having been without power for at least 48 hours, having lost food due to the power outage, and experiencing financial hardship to replace this food, a news release said.
“The public seems to be respecting the eligibility criteria,” he said, noting that calls seem to be coming from only people who need the cards.
As part of the application process, the name of the applicant, address and the number of people living in the household was to be provided.
“We are tracking that information to ensure that we’re not mailing multiple gift cards to the same address,” said Beumer.
The program is supposed to be based on financial need, meaning the cards are to go to people who cannot afford to replace the food they lost when their fridges and freezers didn’t have power. But the vouchers are being distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, based on a declaration of financial hardship from the individuals who apply.
“It’s hard to determine the exact level of needs,” said Beumer.
There were inquiries about the gift cards before the province officially announced the program would be extended to the county, he said.
The cards were made available in $50 denominations, with families eligible to receive $100 and individuals in need to receive $50. Most cards that have been given out so far have gone to families, Beumer said.
By Jessica Lovell