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Janet Wees, seen here outside her garage in Calgary on April 2, 2020, used Men in Kilts Canada to get her groceries delivered. They're a building-exterior cleaning company that has recently been offering free grocery delivery to seniors in many communities across Canada.TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

For Janet Wees, the “new normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic includes more time for baking, a hiatus from her usual volunteering and a man in a kilt rummaging around in her mailbox.

He was there last week to pick up her shopping list and gift cards to take to her local co-op grocery store in Calgary. The usually active 73-year-old has diabetes and asthma, and is staying home because she knows she is at risk. Men in Kilts Canada, a building-exterior cleaning company, has recently been offering free grocery delivery to seniors in many communities across Canada.

“I’m afraid to go out because of my health issues,” Ms. Wees said.

Like many in her position, she was aware of the delays many people have faced when trying to access online grocery delivery services in Canada. As people have been urged to stay home to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, e-commerce grocery sites have been overwhelmed. Major grocers such as Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Metro Inc. have appealed to Canadians to shop in stores – at a distance from others – if they are healthy enough to do so, and to leave online options for seniors and others who are most at risk. But the demand has not abated.

“I lucked out," Ms. Wees said. Her delivery man wore a mask and gloves and kept his distance by dropping the groceries off in her garage (where she left him a tip). "I was just over the moon about how easy it was.”

Across the country, organizations have been scrambling to help provide access to groceries for vulnerable populations that are self-isolating.

“The time slots available for grocery pickup or delivery are 10 days out or more,” said Carolyn Askeland, executive director of the not-for-profit Community Support Services of Niagara. The Ontario organization has been operating a phone-in service to place online orders for seniors who either do not have internet connections or are not comfortable making online purchases. Volunteers and staff then pick up and deliver the orders.

In rural areas, online delivery services are not as abundant as in cities, said Kathy Scanlon, executive director of One Care Home and Community Support Services, a non-profit that serves Ontario’s Huron and Perth counties.

The group approached four local Foodland locations, which had no online ordering, to create an ersatz delivery system. One Care takes orders by phone and then calls them in to Foodland, store staff pack the orders and One Care staff and volunteers handle the deliveries.

“It’s really important that we reach out, because it’s often in the very rural areas where people are more isolated,” Ms. Scanlon said.

Families of seniors are also scrambling. Leila Cools, who lives in Montreal, has been trying to secure grocery delivery for her 88-year-old mother in Thornhill, Ont., who is a regular Grocery Gateway customer. She has had no luck finding a delivery window. An order with another company was cancelled because of a lack of inventory, she said.

Many grocers have instituted dedicated seniors’ shopping hours in stores, for those who can get there. But solving the delivery crunch is not easy. “There is no way from a system perspective for us to prioritize the service to certain customers,” Metro spokeswoman Marie-Claude Bacon said.

“Seniors’ ability to get out to grocery stores and to compete with others in securing food is an issue in all of our communities,” said Dan Clement, president and chief executive of United Way Centraide Canada, which is administering $9-million in recently announced federal funding to help local organizations to provide services to seniors, including delivering groceries and medications.

Men in Kilts’ foray into grocery delivery started with franchisee Derek Kerwin in Orillia, Ont., and soon other locations jumped on board. Some are now receiving 90 calls a day for deliveries. Meanwhile, the company has seen service calls, and revenue, plummet in what is usually a busy time of year.

“There’s a real fear with them being able to keep their people employed, pay their bills,” CEO Chris Carrier said. “They’re doing what they can. It’s inspiring to see people step up.”

Seniors are not the only ones affected. People with disabilities who have relied on online grocery services for years are also finding themselves shut out.

Since Shannon Weese suffered multiple back injuries from an incident at work in 2015, he has relied on grocery pickup from Walmart because he can walk only very limited distances.

“I didn’t have to get out of the car, just opened my trunk and they put everything in,” Mr. Weese said. His last order, in early March, was ready within two days. Since then, he has not found an open time slot. His girlfriend now has to do all the shopping for the family of five. “It makes me more limited,” he said. “I just feel like I’m not doing my part any more.”

Robyn, 51, lives on her own in Toronto and has used online grocery ordering for more than three years, following a head injury. (The Globe and Mail has agreed not to use her last name because she is concerned about the potential for employment discrimination because of her condition.) She lives with postconcussion syndrome and persistent postural-perceptual dizziness, or PPPD, which affects her mobility. The bright lights, crowds and noises of grocery stores make her symptoms much worse.

Amid the pandemic, she has been unable to secure a spot with the services she used most – Grocery Gateway and Metro. Companies should give priority to people who used their e-commerce services before the pandemic hit, she said.

“It’s a basic need, the ability to get food.”

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