Food Banking in the New Reality: The Story of the Whitehorse Food Bank

It was business as usual for the Whitehorse Food Bank Society; packing and distributing food hampers to approximately 1,300 people a month.

Then the pandemic hit.

A third of the population was laid off. The local shelter closed their doors. Grocery store shelves were being emptied. And the entire city (along with the rest of the world) went into lockdown. All of a sudden, this community-based organization, with a mandate of providing emergency food to people in need, was on the verge of its own emergency—having enough provisions to cover a 30% increase in demand.

What a difference a day makes.

With the need for food higher than it had ever been, it was clear that resources were about to be stretched to their limits.

“Food security is unfortunately a regular issue for our community. When COVID hit, that issue was taken to the next level,” recalls Dave Blottner, Executive Director of the Whitehorse Food Bank (WFB). “That’s because in addition to our regular clients, we suddenly found ourselves providing emergency food assistance to an area that extended beyond a 700-kilometre radius (of Whitehorse). That’s a lot of people in need and an extensive amount of ground to cover.”

Then there was the added ‘human resource’ challenge faced by many food banks at the start of the pandemic—a massive drop in volunteers.

“Our entire volunteer network pre-COVID was made up of seniors,” explains Dave. “But when everyone went into lockdown, so did our volunteers and for obvious reasons. This meant having to incur the added expense of hiring actual staff to ensure we were capable of keeping up with the increased demand.”

Beyond paying for salaries and all of the extra food they had to buy, the WFB also had to cover other unexpected costs as a result of the pandemic.

“What seemed like overnight, there were expenses we never had before,” says Dave. “Things such as professional cleaning services and transportation costs to get food hampers delivered. It all quickly ate into our operating budget. In fact, we spent more money in the last 5 months than we do in a single year. This kind of spending wasn’t sustainable for long. We needed an injection of funds to keep going and we needed it fast.”

That’s when Food Banks Canada stepped in to provide much-needed financial relief thanks to a grant.

“The grant we received from Food Banks Canada was the difference between staying open or closing our doors, it’s that simple,” expresses Dave. “Not only did they step in with the massive financial commitment, which has enabled us to hire staff, buy more food, and pay our bills—FBC also went above and beyond to make sure we felt personally supported. Because in the beginning (of the pandemic), we felt like we were drowning. There were so many challenges to overcome, but the Food Banks Canada team has been continually checking in to make sure we’re okay. It’s a great feeling to know that we’re not in this alone.”

Dave has also been both amazed and thankful at how the community of Whitehorse has risen to the challenge in support of the WFB.

“Yukoners have a reputation of coming together to help each other,” states Dave. “However, in the case of COVID, people have truly come out of the woodwork for us. We’ve had many restaurants in the area completely empty their kitchens into the food bank, resulting in a very special donation of fresh arctic char. Coffee shops have sent us their coffee. Local unions and businesses have either pitched in money or food, or both. I even received a blank cheque from a very generous individual with the instruction to fill it out for whatever amount that was needed to keep us going. The level of support we’ve received from everyone has honestly been overwhelming and very much appreciated.”

The impact from all of that support has enabled the WFB to further expand its own sustainable source of fresh foods for people in need.

“It’s really important for us to include as many fresh food items as possible to the clients we serve,” says Dave. “The funds we received from Food Banks Canada, along with generous donations from the community, have afforded us the ability to build extra gardens onsite. More gardens equal more fresh produce for more people. I’m happy to say that we now have a total of 44 garden beds full of fresh vegetables. Plus we’ve partnered with local farms, who are all doing their part to keep us supplied in fresh veggies.”

While it’s been a long and winding road for the WFB since March, there is a definite sense of accomplishment for all of the challenges they’ve overcome.

“When I look back over the past several months, I can’t help but feel proud at where we are today,” reveals Dave. “When we lost our entire volunteer base at the start of the pandemic, we rebuilt it from scratch. When the local shelter closed, we designed and implemented a 7-day-a-week, twice-a-day meal service to feed those in need. When seniors called us in tears, terrified of leaving their homes, we designed and implemented a delivery system to send food hampers to people residing in no less than 7 communities beyond Whitehorse—several of them living hundreds of kilometres away. So many challenges and yet we’ve somehow managed to successfully get through all of them.”

For food banks across the country that might be facing similar challenges, Dave has some very sage advice.

“I think the key to working through any kind of obstacle is flexibility,” says Dave. “What helped us to get through the really tough moments was being able to continually adapt and change things as needed, as well as our willingness to partner with new groups. Because when you open yourself to others, you invite good things to happen.”

Thanks to an entire network of support, the WFB has been making good things happen for many people during a very difficult time.

“This entire situation with COVID has shined a light on just how much the work that we do means to those we serve,” explains Dave in closing. “We have received several messages of gratitude from families telling us how thankful they were to open boxes of food they could not afford to get otherwise. Some of these people live in some very remote places and then you realize that it’s not just about Whitehorse anymore, but the Yukon as a whole. These are the moments that inspire us to keep going. Because as long as there are people in need, you better believe we’re going to be there to help them the best way we can.”

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