Food Banking in the New Reality: The Story of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank

10% of households in Greater Vancouver are considered to be food insecure.

But what does that mean when you’re an organization responsible for feeding a city in need?

For the Greater Vancouver Food Bank (GVFB), it involves receiving, purchasing, and distributing 5 to 6 million pounds of food each year.

Due to the sheer vastness of the area they cover, the GVFB relied on a series of distribution partners throughout the city in order to get that food out to the people they serve.

However, on March 16th, when municipalities across Canada imposed a lockdown in response to the pandemic, the GVFB lost many of these distribution sites. “When the COVID crisis began, our way of distributing food was severely impacted,” explains David Long, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. “Up to that point, we used everything from schools and neighbourhood houses to churches and community centres as food distribution sites. However, these places were all literally shut down overnight because of immediate social distancing restrictions that were enacted to protect the public.”

At the same time, with so many people choosing to isolate initially, the GVFB saw a massive drop in the number of volunteers they had to sort, pack, and assist with all of that food distribution.

“Those first few days (of lockdown) were definitely challenging,” continues David. “But it’s not like we could just stop what we were doing. People were counting on us more than ever. So we rolled up our sleeves and immediately took action to secure emergency distribution points across the Greater Vancouver area. The size of these locations was of paramount importance, as they had to be big enough to allow for people to maintain social distancing.”

With a plan in place and a new team of volunteers stepping in to offer their support, the GVFB managed to do what almost seemed impossible.

“With COVID-19 forcing the closure of all 12 of our normal distribution sites, finding replacement locations was daunting at first,” states David. “However, thanks to some quick thinking of our team and the amazing generosity of people in the Greater Vancouver area, we were able to move to 4 larger sites—enabling us to streamline our operations. This has helped us to be more efficient with our operating costs. Plus, with these new locations all operating on extended hours, we’ve been able to ensure that nobody is turned away. This is a huge accomplishment, considering we had 734 new client registrations in the month of April alone.”

In addition to making sure they had the capacity to serve a growing number of people in need, it was also important for the GVFB to provide those people with fresh food options.

“Where possible, we’ve moved away from pre-bagged allotments—putting the emphasis instead on (distributing) fresh food items,” says David. “Everything you can imagine like milk, eggs, fruit, and proteins such as chicken and ground beef.”

David believes the quality of the food items being provided to clients today really helps to showcase how far food banks have evolved.

“Over the past several months, we’ve had people come into the food bank for the first time in years (because of the pandemic) and just stand there amazed at all of the fresh food they were getting. One person even came up to one of our staff and asked, ‘are you serious, is this all really for me?’ It’s almost like they couldn’t believe that we’d be offering these kinds of items. We are here to fight food insecurity and give healthy food to those in need. It’s a great feeling to be part of team that plays a role in making that happen.”

A lesser-known service the GVFB provides is how they support the food needs of more than 80 community agency partners.

David goes on to explain, “Beyond the new and existing clients that come through our doors, we also serve another portion of the community who may not be able to access our food bank directly. This includes neighbourhood houses, First Nations centres, after school programs, and women and children’s shelters—all of whom supply hot meals and snacks to thousands of people each week.”

These places have all seen significant increases in demand for food services due to diminished support from their own supply chains and donors because of the pandemic.

“Thanks to the federal government funding that came through Food Banks Canada, we were able to purchase and donate industrial fridges and freezers to community agencies throughout Greater Vancouver,” says David. “This has provided a much-needed expansion to the network of food access these agencies rely on.”

As part of that expansion, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank now delivers fresh perishable food for up to 450 people to each community agency that received a refrigeration unit.

“Because of Food Banks Canada and the generous contributions we’ve received from many local residents, businesses, and organizations, we now also have the capacity to respond to additional requests from new community groups,” explains David. “So many of them are in need of replacing food programs that are either no longer available or are currently inaccessible to their at-risk, elderly, or immunocompromised clients because of the pandemic.”

Being such an essential lifeline to so many people in need means also having to think two steps ahead.

“With all of the demands on the supply chain at the start of the pandemic, we wanted to be prepared for any scenario,” says David. “So, we purchased $500,000 in non-perishable food and have it stored in one of our warehouses, just in case.”

Yet beyond the uncertainty of these challenging times, for David there is a silver lining to it all.

“The relationships that have been built from this crisis are very special,” states David. “They demonstrate the willingness of a community to come together to support each other. So many have stepped up to the plate during the past few months. It fills me with such a sense of pride to live in a community that clearly cares so deeply about one another.”

Those special relationships have provided the GVFB with immeasurable support that has included:

  • Receiving 400,000 pounds of food from docked cruise ships in the area;
  • Inspiring the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team to join forces with a local artist and brewer to create a special commemorative print and a craft beer honouring frontline workers, with 100% of the proceeds (from both) being donated to the Greater Vancouver Food Bank; and,
  • Securing essential donations of money, food, personal protective equipment, and hand sanitizer (courtesy of Food Banks Canada). 

As for what the future holds, David is both excited and hopeful.

“As the days roll on, we continue to adjust the way we operate for the better. There has been a tremendous amount of change over the past couple of months in the way we distribute food. As the numbers we serve continue to grow, this will enable us to provide more food to people in need than ever before. And while we don’t know how long this situation is going to last, as we look out on to the horizon, I believe that together, not only can we make it through, but we’ll all come out stronger on the other side.”

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