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The Calgary Food Bank overhauled its distribution centre to serve the community as a drive-thru, as shown here in March, 2020.Calgary Food Bank/Handout

When a massive wildfire was bearing down on Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016, provincial and local emergency agencies mobilized to provide shelter, clothing and other support for the tens of thousands of people forced from their homes.

But nobody called the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, something that Arianna Scott, who was then the president of the food bank’s board of directors, says is all too common in the early hours of a disaster, when food is seldom top of mind for governments and agencies co-ordinating the response.

“Food banks and food are kind of always the secondary thought for the government, but we are always a primary thought for those in need,” said Ms. Scott, who is now the senior project manager of Food Banks Alberta.

“We need to be part of the conversation about what that [emergency] plan looks like.”

Ms. Scott and other food banks in Canada say the COVID-19 pandemic, which has promoted widespread economic turmoil and dramatically increased demand for such services, has underscored the need to ensure that such agencies are written into emergency plans and treated as a priority.

In Alberta, they are calling for legislative and regulatory changes to treat food banks as an essential service in emergencies. Ontario’s food banks say the pandemic has exposed a patchwork approach that has led to challenges for some organizations, particularly in smaller communities, as they navigate a crisis that has stretched on for almost a year. And in B.C., the umbrella organization for that province’s food banks says it’s working on tools to allow food banks to take emergency planning into their own hands.

Ms. Scott said food banks were added to Alberta’s list of essential services through provincial orders in the spring, when the government determined which businesses and services could remain open during widespread shutdowns, but she said that sort of ad hoc approach wastes valuable time and resources in the early hours and days of a crisis.

“We’re trying to knock down doors at government to say, ‘Hey, we can do this and we can help you,’ whereas if we were just part of the system, we would be better able to provide these services,” she said.

“We would have a system that activates across the province or in small portions of the province.”

Ms. Scott said more government involvement would presumably come with additional financial resources, which food banks need, but more important, logistical support.

She said during the pandemic, a more centralized approach that involved the provincial government could have helped manage food-supply chain issues and ensured food banks had personal protective equipment. The province initially helped food banks and other agencies with PPE, but eventually limited that program to health care services.

The federal government announced $100-million for food banks as part of its COVID-19 response in the spring, which was doubled in October. Provincial governments have also come through with smaller amounts of money.

James McAra, president of the Calgary Food Bank, said he’s been pushing for legislative changes for two decades, to no avail.

“No one’s actually talking about food,” he said. “They’ll talk about shelter. They’ll talk about clothing. They’ll talk about warmth. They’ll make sure all these things are happening, but then it’s like, ‘Did anyone bring sandwiches?’ ”

Mr. McAra said food banks are eventually brought into the process through what he described as “armchair agreements,” but he said scrambling to do that every time slows down the response and leaves food banks interpreting mixed messages from health officials.

That was especially true in the spring when some food banks initially didn’t know if they would be allowed to operate, or what restrictions they would face. For example, he said, there were initially concerns that packaging could be contaminated, leading to a recommendation that food be untouched for 72 hours, which made perishable items off limits.

Alberta’s Community and Social Services Minister, Rajan Sawhney, was unavailable for an interview.

In Ontario, food banks were already considered an essential service before the COVID-19 pandemic, but Carolyn Stewart of Feed Ontario agreed that there has still not been enough work done to ensure they are written into emergency plans and brought into the process early on. There is also a lack of consistency between how different cities’ emergency plans take food into account.

Despite that designation, she said there was confusion among smaller food banks about whether they could stay open. Others were left looking for new space because the buildings where they were operating, such as community centres, were shut down.

“I think sometimes food banks are taken for granted as a system that just keeps operating behind the scenes all the time,” she said.

The Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto has had its usage nearly double since before the pandemic, to about 110,000 visits a month, and demand is still increasing.

Chief executive Neil Hetherington said his organization has a strong working relationship with the City of Toronto, which has been invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city set up its Food Policy Council in 1991.

Mr. Hetherington said the city helped by allowing his group to move locations that had been shut down into libraries and even provided city staff, such as forklift operators, who would have otherwise been laid off.

The provincial government also came through with assistance early on, sending Daily Bread 60,000 hampers each with seven days worth of food, though the surge in demand meant the hampers only lasted two weeks.

Dan Huang-Taylor, executive director of Food Banks B.C., said the experience in his province has been positive in terms of working with governments and being involved in the response.

Still, he said, food banks are recognizing the need to work on their own emergency plans to be ready when disasters happen.

Mr. Huang-Taylor said his group is working with Food Banks Alberta to come up with an online portal to help individual food banks plan for emergencies. The tool, which they are developing with the help of an online education firm, will include training and documents designed to help food banks plan and respond to events such as natural disasters or pandemics.

He said he’s optimistic that the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a reminder about the importance of food banks and food security.

“We’re keen to collaborate with government in determining how food banks fit into emergency planning and legislation,” he said.

“We’ve seen a lot of people thrust into poverty as a result of this pandemic. I think the pandemic has highlighted how vulnerable some of our communities are or how we are as a society.”

The Yonge Street Mission in Toronto says demand for its food bank and hot meals has risen by 196 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as demanding new measures to protect staff and clients from the coronavirus.

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