Floods, fires, and economic fallout. These are some of things that the Edmonton’s Food Bank has gone through over their 40 years of helping those living with food insecurity. The pandemic was a first, but they were prepared.
Mark Doram, Director of Operations at the Edmonton’s Food Bank talks about his tenure and the things he has witnessed. “I’ve been at the food bank for 10 years, and it’s been a great 10 years of my life. Sadly, I’ve also seen many disasters during that time, especially in Edmonton. We’ve had tornadoes, wildfires etc. I have to say that those prepared us for the pandemic. For us, this was just another disaster. I remember when they first declared COVID a global pandemic, we already knew what to do. We had our plexiglass screens ready, and we reduced the number of people who were coming and going. We are very fortunate that we haven’t had to shut down our operations, and knock-on wood, we haven’t had an outbreak so far.”
The increase in clients was something that most food banks were expecting during this time. For the Edmonton’s Food Bank, this increase started before the pandemic.
“The downturn in our economy hit us hard. People were expecting that food banks would have a 30-40% increase in clients during the pandemic, but in Alberta, this was already the case because of the economy. Many people lost their jobs during the pandemic, and that was another additional 10-15% increase in our clients that we had to account for.”
Like so many other food banks, the Edmonton’s Food Bank had to be creative and pivot their operations. Their compassion and commitment are exemplary and the new programs that were created will also be beneficial for many other agencies and partners.
“When the pandemic first began, we had to change our operations. We were building hampers in our warehouse and bringing them to different sites. Unfortunately, many of those had to be shut down. So, we had to think of other ways to be there for those who need us. We opened our second building and were distributing food out of there. We were serving around 100 families a day and we were doing that for five days straight. We were also supplying food to other agencies. Many of them serve hot lunches, but because of the amount of people that were coming in, that was not a viable option. So, we spoke to one of our partners, Capital Meats, and we bought some luncheon meat so those agencies could make sandwiches. We also provided soup to go with it. It was a real change. Another new feature was our mobile food depot where we are going into communities that don’t have food banks set up there and we work out of parking lots to deliver hampers, so we can reach those communities. We want to be able to provide food to anyone who needs it, no matter where they are, and this is something we will continue in the future.”
The Edmonton’s Food Bank is committed to helping those who need them, not just by providing food but also finding other solutions that will make their lives better, so they no longer have to use food banks.
“Another interesting new idea is called the Beyond Food Program and it helps people with resume writing and other skills as well as offering food handling courses. Before the pandemic, we were serving 40 people a day. We had to scale that back a bit because of health guidelines and make it by appointment only but it was still working well. We heard from someone who said they were able to get employment at Alberta Health Services thanks to this program. We can’t wait to continue this afterwards. We also like to connect people to other organizations. For example, housing is a big factor in poverty. People who don’t have a roof over their heads cannot afford food. We connect people to other organizations that provide housing such as Pathway of Hope at the Salvation Army. We want to provide them with the resources they need. Our mission is to ensure that they don’t need to use the food banks anymore.”
And just like many other Canadians across the country, the people of Edmonton were there, behind the food banks, offering their support.
“We lost all our major events last year, our big food and money drives. Christmas was also very light as far as receiving tons of foods. But people who live in Edmonton are very generous. They still managed to fill bins at supermarkets and other places. We also received a lot of monetary donations so we can purchase the food. Canadians know what’s important, food is one of the core needs of survival. We are so lucky to be part of such a wonderful country.”
Mark has heard many stories of hope during his tenure, but a simple birthday cake story was the one that stood out the most for him.
“I remember vividly. There was a father who came with his little boy who was about to celebrate his birthday. They went to the back and were able to find a birthday cake and I remember the little boy hugged the birthday cake and said, ‘Dad this is going to be the best birthday ever’. His eyes were sparkling with joy and hope. The fact that a simple birthday cake brought so much joy to this little boy, I think that is so special to me.”
And he just wants to let everyone know that the food banks are here for them if they need it.
“I often hear so many people tell me that ‘I was a client of yours in the past, and now I am a donor’. How can we say we are not helping when we hear this? So many people are now successfully able to carry on with their lives and no longer have to use the food banks, but we are at a point where people need us and we are here to do just that, to help those who need us the most. I really hope that people don’t feel ashamed that they have to use a food bank, because there is no judgment at the food bank. Anyone can use them.”