Home Blog April 2021 The Importance of Community at the Airdrie Food Bank

The Importance of Community at the Airdrie Food Bank

The Importance of Community at the Airdrie Food Bank
In 2006, Lori McRitchie, Executive Director at the Airdrie Food Bank did not know that she would fall in love with the food banking world. The compassion, the support and the kindness are just a few of the characteristics that would describe what she sees every day.
 
“It’s been a long journey for me and one that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I love what I do”, says Lori.  “I love having the privilege of bringing communities together to support each other, and that’s exactly what food banks do. Food insecurity is at the highest it’s ever been, but even before COVID, the province was already facing a hunger crisis. With the oil industry in turmoil, lots of people were losing their jobs, and neighbours would go hungry, but our community always came together and recognized the needs that exist, and always helping each other however they could. It’s really our communities that are coming together to help support those who are in need”.
 
And it hasn’t always been easy. When Lori first started, her first task was to find a home for the food bank.
 
“Before joining the food bank, I was teaching literacy at a school and teaching kids to read. I was also part of a breakfast club program at the school. I volunteered in the program, and then the person who started the program retired, so the school asked me to take over and I couldn’t refuse. At the time, the city of Airdrie was working with the food bank, but it was a small organization renting space in a building back then, which was owned by Alberta Health Services. Understandably, they wanted to use the space as an urgent care space for the community, so they asked the food bank to move and find a new home. They also wanted to merge the breakfast club program and the food bank together because in a way, both served the same purpose: to help those who cannot afford to eat. So that’s how it happened”, continues Lori.
 
Thanks to the support of the community, they were able to set up the food bank.
 
“When I started, there was a budget of $50,000 a year and only two part time staff. We asked our community to help us, and they really rose to the occasion, once again. Now, here we are, two buildings later. We have a new home. We had this building custom built and we couldn’t have done it without the help of our community”
 
The Airdrie Food Bank always looked forward to the happy times, especially the in-person events which allowed food bankers to connect with their neighbours. Unfortunately, this was shattered by COVID.
 
“2020 has been a time of adaptation. It was exactly a year ago that we sat in our board room and decided that we had to cancel our largest fundraiser of the year, and we were sad that we had to cancel it with just 48 hours’ notice. It had already been paid for and had become a “must-go-to" event in our community. That was difficult for everyone, lots of people were disappointed. As things continued to shut down, we had to continue to adapt and change on the fly. We met as a team to decide how to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances. It was decided to adapt our hamper delivery methods, send some of our staff to work from home, and begin offering some of our programs virtually. It was so challenging to figure out what we were going to do, but we had to take it each day at a time and make decisions based on new information”.
 
And the clients felt it even more.
 
“At the beginning, I remember everyone panicking and going to the store and stocking up on food and other products, like wipes and toilet paper because they were scared. For people living with food insecurity, they did not have the luxury of being able to prepare for whatever was going to come. They could not go to the grocery store even before pandemic, and it was now worse. For them, there was a lot of fear and the feeling that they were not ready or able to tackle this. We saw a lot of clients in the first week, more than we’ve ever seen before. There were many people coming to get that food support and sense of security. We then heard stories about seniors who would not leave their home. Not necessarily because they did not have the financial means, but because they were fearful of leaving their house. It was just heartbreaking”.
 
Especially the kids.
 
“We offer a lot of school programs, but because of the restrictions, we have not been able to offer a lot of them. We used to offer nutritious hot lunches at schools, but Alberta Health Services have recommended that only pre-packaged foods be allowed in schools. We were providing a breakfast program every morning, and a snack attack program, where schools can get the food, which were all pre-packaged items (things like yoghurt and crackers and other little snacks). Thankfully, we are still able to offer that, but not being able to offer the nutritious lunches has been a concern for us. We know that hungry kids have not gone away, and hungry children cannot learn properly. But this doesn’t stop us. We will continue to offer pre-packaged items because for us, it’s important that we make sure that our kids are being fed”.
 
As a food bank, their mission is to be there for those in need no matter the reason. So, the Airdrie food bank just pivoted their operations to continue serving clients.
 
“Something that changed at the beginning was our delivery method. We moved to a drive-thru hamper pickup. We adapted things in our pantry area. We did everything to make it safe.  We had masks at the door and hand sanitizers, and we came up with new ways to do drop-offs. For the seniors that would not leave their homes, we provided them with a delivery service. We tackled one thing at a time. Our priority was to feed our community and keeping them safe”.
 
And many times, those needs are more than just food.
 
“We hear so many stories of our seniors who feel isolated and alone, and they just come in so they can experience human connection. This has probably been the hardest thing about this pandemic — the isolation and the loneliness. We always strive to make sure that our clients are stronger when they leave than when they come in, whether that’s with a week worth of meals, a referral, access to other resources, or just having people to talk to. We are always available for them. That personal interaction is so important to our clients, especially now, more than ever. And we are very much looking forward to going back to our in-person events, our fundraising events, our cooking classes and having our volunteers back”.
 
Food banks will continue to be there as long as the communities need them because that’s what they love to do, and sometimes what clients need, is just a helping hand to get them through their toughest times. 
 
Lori continues by sharing a client story: “I had a client who was under a lot of stress and had a lot of things going on in their life and this mom sent me an email on a Saturday morning. She was heartbroken because she wouldn’t be able to afford food for her child over the weekend.  I remember she kept saying ‘I am a terrible mom; I cannot feed my kid’. My heart broke for her. I was able to provide support for her and gave her some of our emergency packs, and she sent me a picture of her son eating food. To me, that’s a symbol of hope and joy. I could not stop smiling. It just shows that any one of us can end up at a food bank. Circumstances happen, but just to know that our community is here for us, it is an important realization to discover that you are not alone, and she said to me: ‘I am happy that there is someone out there to support me, especially when I am at my lowest point’. This gives me reason to keep pushing on. I was told that when you work in the food banks, clients get into your heart and don’t let go, and I find that to be true”.

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