As the pandemic and resulting economic downturn have taken over the country, food banks are seeing a dramatic rise in public demand.
“We're seeing a steady increase of people. A lot of new families coming in,” began Suzan Krecsy, the executive director with the St. Albert Food Bank. “They're worried. They're very worried about there not being enough food.”
For a snapshot comparison, she pointed to statistics that showed how the local food bank served 355 families, up from 239 families during February 2019. Those figures are definitely on a steep upward trend with all that is going on. Currently, they are seeing an average of approximately 100 families each week with an expectation that this figure will see a corresponding rise as time goes on as well.
The food bank’s staff has initiated all of the appropriate health and safety protocols to ensure that people can still feel comfortable going there while keeping the staff and all of the social workers on site as protected as possible as well. They have adopted more and more meetings and consultations with clients via phone and email.
That means things are also slightly different when clients come down to pick up their hampers. There is a sign on the door that explains everything.
“We're allowing two people into our waiting room at a time and then staff will assist them. The social distancing is taking place as well. If someone has a cough, we ask them to stay outside and we'll make sure that their food gets outside to them. When any of the carts are brought back in after folks have emptied the groceries, we clean the carts. If someone is in social isolation or ill, we are ramping up. We're just starting a delivery program as well but that's for folks who are sick or who can't get to us because of self isolation.”
As expected, that increased demand is also coupled with dropping donations. Krecsy emphasized a request for people to help the food bank as much as possible if they can afford to. Right now, the need is higher than it has ever been.
This seems like it might also lead to more people at the desk of the Community Village.
Interestingly, these same stresses haven’t thoroughly materialized in the form of more people looking for social supports at the Community Village. Krecsy explained how that division of the institution is quieter at this point because “people are concentrating on the food.”
“I think that will come in time once they realize that ... we're not going to close down. I think that's what they are really worried about because there have been other food banks in the province that have closed down. We're assuring people that we are going to do everything within our power to stay open. That'll calm things down but we are getting calls: people want direction on how to apply for EI and things like that. We're just busy getting that updated information so that we can share it with them.”
“When we see the number of people coming in – and we're looking long range as well – this isn't going to end in a day or two. We have to look at months ahead and the need increasing as well.”
This is usually the period of the year for the lowest volume of donations, she added, which gives a ‘double whammy’ to the whole scenario.
If supply doesn’t meet demand, she explained, then the first measure that the food bank takes is to limit the amount of food that goes into each hamper.
The problem on the provincial scale
There have been food banks across the province that have closed, but most of those have involved smaller community food banks that are mostly managed by older volunteer organizers. Many of these people have had to prioritize their own health by self-isolating but others have faced more problematic issues, including thefts most notably at the Edson and Edmonton operations.
Krecsy is relieved that hasn’t become more pervasive at this point. The primary issue is keeping up with the demanding pace. All food banks are seeing an increase in the number of people requesting assistance.
She isn’t necessarily worried about this happening for the St. Albert Food Bank, especially since it is located in a highly visible building near Canadian Tire, with a major construction site next door as well. On top of all of that, the building is also shared with members of the St. Albert RCMP. That’s a real deterrent, she said.
For the most part, however, she has noticed that people in various communities are really stepping up.
"That message needs to go out to everybody. This is a big deal. People who access a food bank are now really, really needing the services. This is a really scary time for a lot of people."