Food is one of most basic and urgent daily necessities, and food banks are an important community resource.
Everyone needs food just to live. But other financial pressures—unemployment, bills and expenses, disability, or other circumstances—can compromise people’s ability to feed themselves and their families.
“There’s definitely been a need for the last 10 years that we’ve operated,” said Larry Lambert of the St. Paul Food Bank.
The St. Paul operation distributes about 500 food hampers every month.
“It goes up and down, but those numbers are pretty steady,” Lambert said.
Food banks in St. Paul, Bonnyville, and Cold Lake are an important lifeline for people who need help making it to the end of the month, or for people facing ongoing difficulty. The staff and volunteers understand that
anybody can find themselves in need of help, and they offer it without judgment.
Pauline Mawer is the executive assistant at Bonnyville Friendship Centre, and until recently has been managing the Bonnyville Food Bank.
“I’ve been working it for 10 years, and in those 10 years, I’ve seen an increase. You know, people from all walks of life, all colours, all races,”
Mawer said monthly hampers for individuals and households are an important part of the food bank’s operation. The Bonnyville food bank also supports the Friendship Centre’s new homeless shelter and other food needs in the community.
Food banks offer support for school students, which Phil Crump of the Cold Lake Food Bank says has far-reaching benefits for the community.
“We’re working with several schools in the area to help support their breakfast program. For example, we use the food share program from Food Banks Alberta to provide cereal for several schools,” he said
The food bank also helps with milk for the cereal, and lunches and healthy snacks during the day.
“The schools are responding and we’re adding some background support with that, with groceries, too, so that kids can be nourished in order to be in good shape, to enjoy their experience of school, to learn well, to work with each other in a successful way.”
Until the Covid-19 pandemic, food banks did not have a foundation of government funding to rely on. All of their operations were supported by individual and corporate donations of funds and food. The federal and provincial governments instituted programs during the pandemic to make sure food banks could operate in case demand went up or donations went down.
All of the local food banks report that demand has actually dipped during the partial lockdown, for a number of reasons. Some regular food bank clients were able to collect the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), for example, taking some pressure off of the food banks.
All of the food banks have used the period of slower demand to stock up and prepare for a busy fall and pre-Christmas period.
“CERB made an impact. Our numbers dropped,” Lambert said. “Now CERB is over and some people even have to pay it back.”
“We’ve been able to purchase a lot of food supplies. We’re stocked up, ready for them to come back, and they’re starting to come around again.”
Community support for area food banks is impressive. All of the
operators say local grocery stores and restaurants have extensive and generous “food rescue” or “food recovery” programs where they give items that are nearing their best-before dates and are unlikely to sell. This includes fresh items like bread and meats that can be frozen and distributed via the food banks.
Grocery stores also have collection boxes for food donations from individuals.
Mawer says she is still amazed and touched by the community’s generosity. “All the big oil companies, the businesses in town, the Town of Bonnyville, the M.D. of Bonnyville, they’ve all donated,” she said.
“I grew up in this community, I know what it’s like. I know that when there’s a need, they come together. It just gives me shivers sometimes how generous people are, and how compassionate they are for those who can’t meet their basic needs.”
Last week, Lakeland Credit Union donated $100,000 between food banks in its operating area, Bonnyville and Cold Lake. Their CEO, Kelly McGiffin, says businesses have an important role to play sustaining their communities.
“I think it’s keenly important,” he said. “It sure gets magnified when things are tough, people realize how difficult that is and how challenging it is for some families.”
He said the value of community really shows when things are most difficult. “I’m happy to say that I see that quite effectively here in both Cold Lake and Bonnyville,” he said.
Individual donations are also important to keeping the food banks operating. Monetary donations are particularly useful because they offer the food banks the flexibility to buy what’s needed at any given time. But food donations are also welcome, and they needn’t be extravagant.
“Just the staples—flour, sugar, baking powder, so they can make bread or bannock. We give out a lot of pasta, rice, soups,” Mawer said.
And all of the operators are always glad to see fresh garden produce—potatoes, onions, carrots, and whatever else people can share.
“We gave away two buckets of squash last night, which was kind of fun. And there’s still some apples to be picked,” Crump said.
He says a whole community thrives better when its neighbours are healthy.
“I heard somewhere that if you get the proper amount of sleep, you’re less aggravated and anxious. I think that’s also true if you’re eating properly, if you’re not sacrificing your meals because you have to pay your rent,” he said.
“We consider ourselves a support organization. We hope that everybody that comes has some kind of income to meet their financial needs, clothing, heat and food. But we know that lots of families and individuals will run out before the end of the month. So we’re there to provide some of that food.”
A secure supply of good food doesn’t just sustain our survival, he said, it gives us life.
“Food is more than just biological fuel,” Crump said. “It’s a social thing. It’s a spiritual thing.”