Food banks in Western Canada are overhauling their operations as the economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic and physical-distancing rules have increased demand while straining resources.
Physical-distancing measures as well as the fact that senior citizens are self-quarantining have reduced the number of staff and volunteers able to sort, prepare and distribute hampers to food-bank users, who now have to call in advance to book their hampers at many places. The change restricts the number of people present at the depots at any given time – recommendations in both Alberta and British Columbia.
Food banks are facing the same challenges as other charities across Canada, which are also dealing with a sudden increase in clients while also coping with fewer resources. Last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $100-million to meet urgent food needs across the country, including in Northern and Indigenous communities, with funding that will go to food banks and other charities.
In Alberta, Edmonton’s Food Bank has closed down a number of its approximately 60 depots, citing physical-distancing measures, and moved volunteers to other locations.
So far, the city’s only food bank is keeping up with demand, says spokesperson Carly Kincaid Williams, but she predicts the widespread job loss in recent weeks will lead to an influx in those hoping to access its services.
“We’re not sure how much of an increase. It’s all going to depend on how long this pandemic plays out. In a perfect world, it would end soon but we know that’s not realistic," Ms. Williams said.
Ms. Williams also said that Ottawa’s funds are a “much needed” help for food banks.
The Calgary Food Bank has already felt the impact of growing unemployment levels, with increased demand for food hampers – estimating an increase of about 100 people a day – along with about 30-per-cent fewer volunteers and staff on hand to stay within the province’s COVID-19 regulations, chief executive James McAra said.
They’ve had to retool their procedures, including developing a new distribution method that Mr. McAra has coined the city’s largest drive-through food bank. People are identified, their orders built and volunteers bring the hampers to the parking lot and place them, ideally, in the trunk of the vehicle with minimal human contact.
Mr. McAra said the food bank adapted a pandemic plan it had developed during the SARS epidemic and ensured the new process would meet Alberta Health Services’ standards.
The food bank has also started giving donated food at least a 48-hour isolation period to allow any presence of the coronavirus to dissipate, he said.
In B.C., food banks are also feeling an impact as a result of the pandemic. The provincial government responded with a $3-million emergency grant that was announced on March 29, which will be divvied between organizations depending on their need.
The Greater Vancouver Food Bank previously operated on a market-style model, explained chief operating officer Cynthia Boulter, with as many as 500 people in a depot in a two-hour span. That distribution model has been eliminated with physical-distancing measures.
“It’s changed every aspect of what we do,” Ms. Boulter said about the effect the coronavirus has had on the organization.
The number of volunteers in each part of a warehouse, such as food sorting and bagging, has dropped from 25 to 10, with each function being spaced out to ensure physical distancing. Gloves are expected to be changed every hour and carts are being wiped down more often.
A new controversial policy set to begin on April 1 at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, requiring more stringent registration to determine low-income status and necessity – a policy that has been contested by an open letter endorsed by various organizations and hundreds of individual supporters – was put on pause until the issues brought on by the pandemic have passed.
Valerie Oppenheimer, who lives in Enderby, B.C., said that she recently attempted to access the Salvation Army’s House of Hope, a food bank in nearby Vernon. Ms. Oppenheimer says she set up an appointment – a common process for food banks during the COVID-19 outbreak – but was unable to make it to the appointment, or to a later time slot that day. As a result, she was pushed back nearly a month to receive a hamper.
Instead, she drove to Salmon Arm, showing them identification and proof of residency, and received an emergency hamper that day.
Ms. Oppenheimer says that beyond this redirection to another food bank, she hasn’t been affected by the coronavirus’s impact on food banks, only noticing small irregularities such as a reduction of hamper supplies as well as health and safety measures put in place.
Stefan Reid, a corps officers with the House of Hope, said that it’s uncommon for appointments to be moved back, stating that food bank books appointments for the following day. Mr. Reid says they are still accommodating those in need of emergency hampers.
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