Every moment matters for food banks struggling with volunteer burnout

National Volunteer Week 2024 (April 14–20) is a time to celebrate the impact of volunteer service and the power of dedicated volunteers who help support the network of 10 Provincial Associations and 5,100 community organizations, driven by the mission of relieving hunger today and preventing hunger tomorrow.

This year’s theme is Every Moment Matters, which highlights the importance of every volunteer and each contribution they make at a moment when hundreds of thousands of Canadians need emergency food support more than ever, as the demand at food banks across the country hits all-time highs.

Food Banks Canada’s HungerCount report found in March 2023 there were nearly 2 million visits to food banks across Canada, representing a 32 per cent increase compared to March 2022, and a 78.5 per cent increase compared to March 2019, which is the highest year-over-year increase in usage ever reported.

Overall, food bank visits have increased at greater and greater rates since 2019, pre-pandemic.

That is why we are calling for folks to get more involved and help prevent volunteer burnout by dedicating some of their time to their local food bank.

To learn more about opportunities to volunteer in your area, use our Find a Food Bank tool.

“Volunteer burnout is our worst fear because we rely so heavily on our volunteers, and their jobs are turning into regular part and full-time positions because of our increased number of clients. We can’t keep up with this level of growth — it’s not sustainable.”

— HungerCount survey respondent, Ontario

At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Campus Food Bank Programs Manager Madi Corry said increased demand is putting both staff and volunteers at risk of burnout.

According to Corry, volunteering at a food bank can be a highly rewarding experience, but it can also be emotionally draining due to the continuing increases in demand.

January 2024 was one the busiest months of operations ever for the Campus Food Bank, with staff and volunteers supporting 1,053 households and a total of 1,790 individuals.

Many appointments now need to be scheduled weeks in advance and the wait time has doubled in a matter of months, though the food bank is still booking emergency appointments by email if a client is in immediate need of food access.

Corry added this has increased the number of difficult conversations at the food bank and the need for staff and volunteers to worry about a continued increase in demand.

“Our volunteers rarely stand still, as they restock the shelves with staple pantry items and produce for clients to take home,” Corry said. “This fast pace means less time to chat with clients, which is something many volunteers look forward to each shift.”

Burlington Food Bank Executive Director Robin Bailey said their volunteers have been recognizing the high level of growth in the number of visits, with the food bank serving as many unique individuals in the first three months of this year than in all of 2021.

“The need just keeps expanding,” Bailey said. “I don’t know what we would do without our volunteers. They are some of the most compassionate people I know who have a desire to show care for their community. It’s an amazing thing to witness and it’s inspiring, but at the same time, is it enough and how much can we do?”