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Volunteers Rochelle Northey, left to right, Drew Penner and Jennifer Hayman use physical distancing while they prepare food at Meals on Wheels in Edmonton on April 3, 2020.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Charities in Calgary and Edmonton that provide meals to vulnerable people are facing increasing pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first red alert came to me two weeks ago when Edmonton chef and Meals on Wheels communications consultant Charles Rothman reached out. Volunteer numbers and donations for the organization had dropped substantially as government restrictions on social distancing were put in place.

“With the growing need in our community we require donations and volunteers to allow us to maintain our core services to a growing list of senior and vulnerable clients. We put out a plea for volunteers on a local level,” Mr. Rothman says.

The chef says many people answered the call for volunteers, but Meals on Wheels got a significant boost after Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, mentioned her own volunteering for the initiative during her March 31 update. The operation is now working 24/7 to keep up with increased demand.

As social-distancing restrictions stretch on, Mr. Rothman stresses that their main concern is maintaining the number of drivers to get meals to the thousands of Edmonton residents who rely on the program.

The first red alert came two weeks ago when Edmonton chef and Meals on Wheels communications consultant Charles Rothman reached out.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

“We are in the process of organizing a list of ‘relief’ drivers from the community as well as local businesses who may have the ability to support delivery,” he says.

He says that when many independent restaurants closed their doors – albeit temporarily – vast amounts of perishable ingredients were donated to a variety of shelters and food-system-focused programs in the Alberta capital, including Meals on Wheels.

In mid-March, The Mustard Seed’s shelters across Alberta also began to face donation challenges in light of COVID-19. The urgent needs for their residents vary from each location – Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton, Medicine Hat – but can include anything from oatmeal and juice to prepared meat for sandwiches, fresh fruit and more.

What the shelter locations have in common is a need for sanitizer and personal-hygiene products, as well as personal-protective wear for staff and volunteers.

The Mustard Seed’s director of community development, Megan Schuring, emphasizes that the non-profit is placing the safety of its volunteers first. However, community support is needed more than ever.

“Food security is something that many people experiencing homelessness or poverty face each day – especially now during the pandemic,” Ms. Schuring says. “We have modified much of our food programming so as to offer volunteers alternate ways of donating their time while maintaining safe social distancing.”

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For those interested in providing food, The Mustard Seed encourages people first to find out what current urgent needs are, or, to donate non-perishable items to the food bank, as the bulk of their food supply comes from that source. Any restaurants opting for temporary closings can also provide larger-scale donations of non-perishable and frozen-perishable foods.

The Community Kitchen Program of Calgary operates a variety of community programs under its umbrella, but because of the current crisis has had to scale back to just two: a food-rescue initiative called Spinz-A-Round and Good Food Box.

Sven Anders, a board member and volunteer, right, and Charles Rothman deliver an order for Meals on Wheels.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

CKP Calgary’s chief executive Sundae Nordin says they began to feel the effects of COVID-19 during the second week of March and had to stop several programs that involved group learning, because of social-distancing measures.

The two programs that are still active are both essential as they supply marginalized individuals with good quality food and fresh ingredients to cook with at home. Good Food Box specifically focuses on fresh produce that is sold at a fraction of the retail cost while Spinz-A-Round repurposes foods from grocers and farmers’ markets that are near expiry or best-before dates, and which would otherwise be discarded.

During a typical month when all programs are active, CKP Calgary supports more than 20,000 people who face food insecurity and poverty.

For now, Ms. Nordin says that there has been no disruption to their supply chain for these programs, but acknowledges that is possible as pandemic-related restrictions continue.

Mr. Anders delivers an order to Thomas Potts, 91, while keeping his physical distance.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

“We have a five-month plan for our operation, which depends on funding and resources, but this is all changing on a weekly basis,” Ms. Nordin says. “We are doing our best to take it day-by-day right now. Things are just so unpredictable right now.”

Ms. Nordin’s organization – along with many others, food-related or not – is also in the frustrating position of losing donations from events that have been cancelled or postponed. CKP Calgary was a benefiting charity of the annual Half Your Plate Chef’s Dinner, which was set for March 20, but has been postponed indefinitely.

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