The pandemic helped the Loaves and Fishes Food Bank shape a better future for those in need

2020 has been a year of stress, anxiety, and change. Lockdowns in place, job losses across the country—Food Banks knew they would have their jobs cut out for them as they anticipated an increase in clients. But the difficult challenges would not stop them from helping their neighbours. It just meant they had to find creative ways to continue operations. 

“There have been huge challenges as we adapted to COVID 19. We had to shift operations and figure out what works best for us”, says Peter Sinclair, Executive Director at Loaves and Fishes Food Bank. “We had to move all our distributions outside, requiring tent setups and drive-thru services so clients could stay in their vehicles to pick up their food. It was challenging, especially because of the way we check clients in when they arrive in their cars. From March to April, we had to test different systems to make that work, and finally, we figured out a system where clients would just show their ID) in the window of their vehicles, and staff would read out the information on the phone to a volunteer who was at home and logged into our computer system. This has been working smoothly so far. When COVID is over, we want to continue to offer this drive-thru service because it works, and clients appreciate it. We will go back to a system where clients can come inside and choose, but we will also continue to offer this alternative”. 

Thankfully, Canadians stepped up to help communities in need, and the opportunities to do more arose quickly, especially when it came to infrastructure needs. 

“We have never seen such an abundance of food. Ironically, that abundance was our challenge. Of course, these are good problems to have, and we’ll take this over scarcity any time. Another thing we are doing is investing in the future. These investments are in capital infrastructure that will enable us to access even more food in the future. That includes more refrigerated vehicles so we can access even more food. We are currently in a 6000 sq foot facility and are in the process of planning a new 29,000 square foot warehouse. Food Banks Canada provided funding to purchase an industrial bin washing machine as our food recovery program requires 500-600 bins be washed a day. These investments in infrastructure will save us money in the long run and position us to positively adapt fluctuations in food donations in the future  

As lockdowns started to take place, so did the fear of getting sick, so food banks lost a lot of volunteers, but fortunately, they were also able to gain some lifelong employees. 

“We saw a drop in the number of volunteers that were coming in and an increase in food donations, as well as funds, so we were able to use some money to hire staff. Thankfully, our volunteers are starting to come back as we really need them, but we are also retaining most of the staff that was hired because our operations are expanding across Vancouver Island”. 

As if that was not enough, other vulnerable communities were also able to benefit from the generous support. 

“We supply food directly to clients at our food bank depots in Nanaimo and Port Hardy, but we also supply food to over a hundred of other non-profit schools’ programs and indigenous communities. In 2020, we were able to supply $6.2 million worth of food and $1.7 million of that went to other organizations in need. We drive food from our main facility up to 4 1/2 hours to get to those communities, and we are grateful that we can now expand this even more”. 

At the core, clients remain a priority, especially when it comes to food choices. 

“Now that clients cannot come in anymore, we have pre-made hampers built for them with all essential food. But when the clients come through, we still want them to have a choice so they can refuse or accept any surplus products they like. For example, we had pallets of salmon, and as clients came, we would ask them “would you like some salmon” and if so, how much. It was always ultimately their choice. So, we are trying to balance client choice with the need to keep people moving through.  

When the clients call to share their stories, it shows that food banks are making a difference in people’s lives. 

“Recently, I know of a person who was going through a fair amount of turmoil in their life. I got a message from them saying that the food bank was keeping their family afloat right now and they were blown away by the volume of food they received. The pandemic really took a toll on them. They went from having a high income to no income practically overnight and being able to get food for their family was significant for them. They sent me a picture of a freezer that was full of meat. They had received $1000 worth of food from the food bank, and they were in tears over it. This is what gives me hope.”