Food Banking in the New Reality: The Story of Interfaith Food Bank Society of Lethbridge

The unknown is a difficult thing to plan for — especially when people in need are depending on you.

But back in March, ‘the unknown’ is exactly what the Interfaith Food Bank Society in Lethbridge (IFB) was faced with. When the wave of the global pandemic forced mass shutdowns nationwide, the IFB had to quickly come up with multiple plans for many first-time challenges. 

This included dealing with a massive drop in the number of volunteers.

“In the beginning (of the pandemic), we lost a ton of volunteers,” recalls Danielle McIntyre, Executive Director of the IFB. “There was a huge fear of the unknown and for good reason, as many of our regular volunteers consist of seniors and individuals with special needs. Since nobody knew how long this unknown threat was going to play out for, most decided to stay home as a precaution.”

In addition to a loss in volunteers, the IFB also had to compensate for an immediate halt to local events that were essential in generating food and financial donations.

“Another hurdle we had to overcome was the cancellation of fundraisers,” explains Danielle. “Since these types of events usually involve mass gatherings, we didn’t quite know where money and food donations were going to come from. Then there were logistical issues to consider, such as how we were going to service clients in a community that was suddenly living under lockdown. It was definitely daunting, especially as the situation was changing by the minute. But the thing about dealing with the unknown is that you learn to adapt, real fast.”

This meant having to modify their approach to recruiting donations during the pandemic.

“When we were having difficulty purchasing the basics (because of interruptions to the supply chain), it didn’t take long for it to sink in that this wasn’t going to be a short-term crisis,” states Danielle. “For example, normally we’d be swimming in bread and pastries. Then, what seemed like overnight, none of those items could be found—anywhere. That’s when we shifted our focus to recruiting financial donations, versus asking for food.”

A big helping hand on that front came in the form of a sizeable grant raised through a national campaign spearheaded by Food Banks Canada.

“Food Banks Canada has been absolute champions in supporting the IFB,” says Danielle. “It’s no exaggeration to say that funds we received as a result of their national campaign have enabled us to keep the lights on and the doors open. As the person tasked with finding the money, it’s a huge relief.”

The financial assistance provided to the IFB by Food Banks Canada has been exceptionally helpful because those funds are ‘unrestricted’.

This means the IFB has been able to use that money wherever necessary, including purchasing personal protective equipment, upgrading technology, and covering staff salaries. Grants from other sources, on the other hand, may come with certain limitations (I.e. donated funds can only be spent on food).

The IFB has also seen a high amount of community support thanks to the national campaign.

According to Danielle, “Food Banks Canada initiatives (such as the Stronger Together telethon back in April) really helped to increase awareness and inspire people to give locally. One altruistic individual in our community donated $100,000 to the IFB and said he wanted us to use it for purchasing food. If somebody gives me that kind of money and says it’s for food, you can bet that’s exactly what I’m going to spend it on.”

Food Banks Canada was also able to help the IFB feel more prepared to navigate these uncertain times in other ways.

“FBC provided us with a clear focus, including how to access other grants and resources,” explains Danielle. “This has led us to taking on the lead role in managing a $190,000 grant for our local Food Pod, where we will be distributing funds to partner agencies. We have also been able to access further COVID-specific funds to expand our special dietary needs program. This money will allow us to increase our online capabilities and help us to reorganize how we recruit and train volunteers during the pandemic.”

The past several months have also demonstrated the important role that IFB and other food banks play beyond the scope of food insecurity.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve learned how our food bank is often the first stop for people in any type of crisis,” states Danielle. “Through our hamper delivery program, we connect these individuals with support systems within the community. This means in addition to food assistance, individuals and families receive wellness checks, mental health and parenting supports, kids activity packs, and many other key resources.”

While the pandemic has created its fair share of stress and uncertainty, there is no doubt for Danielle that it has also brought out the best in humanity.

“In the early stages of lockdown, we were getting large quantities of bulk produce from local restaurants that had to (temporarily) close their doors. Normally these types of donations would be great for us—yet with many clients unable to come in, there was a potential for a lot of waste. However, one of our regulars is this older gentleman who always shows up like clockwork. He was taken aback at seeing so much fresh food and decided he didn’t want anything going to waste. Since he has a truck, he offered to help deliver this produce to people who couldn’t make into the food bank. I was seriously moved. There is just something so amazing about a recipient of (food bank) support making the choice to help others in need.”

These are the kinds of moments that bring much-needed light to some otherwise dark times.

“The pandemic has been a real learning experience,” says Danielle. “There was so much fear of the unknown in the beginning. Maybe there still is. But the difference since those first few days and weeks is that we’ve discovered we’re not alone. Many people in the community have stepped up to help out. We’ve also been fortunate enough to build many wonderful partnerships that will continue to serve us, well beyond this current crisis. So, while there still might be plenty of uncertainty ahead, no obstacle is too great as long as we face it together.”

You have the power to make a difference. Click here to get involved.