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things that work

A volunteers at the Whistler food bank stocks the shelves with food for distribution to the needy December 10, 2012.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In the second of a 12-day series, we profile a B.C. program, policy or organization that's having a positive impact, against the odds.

Newly arrived from Britain, 23-year-old Alex found himself in a bind. He wasn't getting many hours at the bartending job that had brought him to Canada, and, as a result, he didn't have much food.

So on a Monday earlier this month, he turned up at the food bank in this expensive resort community that co-hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics. He picked out goods in a space that has all the ambiance of a general store, with shelves offering cans of tomato sauce, jars of peanut butter and bags of rice, among many items. There are boxes of oranges, apples, carrots, onions and salads, and even gluten-free products. And there's a garden on the property that produces beets, beans and kale. Food is either donated or bought by the operation.

"A mate told me about the food bank and I thought, 'That's a brilliant idea,'" Alex explained, lugging supplies outside the food bank, which occupies a space in a former daycare centre that's home to the Whistler Community Services Society. He could have turned to friends, or contacted his parents for help, but was wary of either option.

"You know how it is. You want to stand on your own two feet," he said. "Once I am back on my feet, I would happily come back down here and help them out, maybe giving food or time."

Food banks are an entrenched reality across Canada, but there's a particular twist to the operation in this town about 125 kilometres north of Vancouver, which has some of Canada's most expensive real estate, as well as many tony restaurants and hotels.

Some are surprised that Whistler even has a food bank, given its pricey sheen. But it has been around since 1989 and is crucial to a client base organizers say includes many underemployed resort-industry workers. They can't get enough hours, or arrive in town only to find that promised work isn't yet available.

Lorna Van Straaten, executive director of the community services society, said "underemployment" is the key reason clients show up.

"That means there are employers, for whatever reason, that are not able to give their employees enough hours of work to pay rent and buy food at the same time," she said.

During a visit in early December, 45 clients came by during the 2 1/2 hours the food bank was open.

From January, 2011, to March, 2012, according to the most recent official statistics by the society, the food bank served 3,535 clients, of which 209 were children. That was up 711 people from the same period in 2010-11. So far this year, Ms. Van Straaten said, food-bank usage is down about 700 people.

However, the society faced a 4,558-kilogram decline in food donations. It has also taken $50,000 from a capital fund for a new thrift store.

Underemployment, Ms. Van Straaten suggested, is a reality in places like the Lower Mainland, but is probably more pronounced in a resort community like Whistler and fuels food bank demand in slow seasons.

Joel Chevalier, director of employee experience for the Whistler Blackcomb operation that manages skiing and snowboarding venues as well as 42 stores and restaurants, said the company is mindful of the issue. In recent years, it has hired fewer employees so there are more hours to go around. Each year, the company hires between 800 and 900 new employees, many of them young. The company makes donations to the food bank, either directly or through fundraising.

"We do see that our employees, even though they're getting plenty of hours, are making some less grown-up choices on where they're going to spend their money, and at the end of the two-week period, they realize they actually don't have any money left. That's when they will go and rely on the food bank," he said.

Despite the company's best efforts, he says some employees will inevitably use the food bank. "We're not always in a position to change the behaviour of 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds. They're going to do what they're going to do, but we have worked really hard to make sure our impact on the food bank is minimal."

For years, the food bank operated in a trailer on a church property. This year, it moved to its current location, a few kilometres south of the iconic Whistler Village. Volunteers arrive early to sort through the food. In the past, clients were given bags of food. More recently, they've been invited to choose what they need. The new approach eliminates waste, as people are less likely to throw out items they don't want.

Laura, 20, moved to Whistler from Halifax. She's working in a café, but said she was left with $20 from her last paycheque after paying rent of $900 a month for the room in a house where she lives with her boyfriend. She went to a food bank a few times while living in Halifax, but prefers the one in Whistler.

"This one is more geared towards my age group. The one in Halifax was more like old, homeless men and stuff like that," she said.

The rules restrict visits to once every two weeks, but Laura occasionally visits in successive weeks. "It's like, 'I'm sorry, but I had to come. There was no other option.' They're always very welcoming. It's not like they're going to turn you away if you need it."