Most people have a working idea of what a food bank does – the public donates canned goods, boxes of pasta and jars of peanut butter at food drive events and maybe gives a monetary donation during the holidays or volunteers to sort food or pack hampers. Meanwhile, people in need – be it suburban families who are going through a tough month, elderly or disabled people whose social assistance doesn’t cover all of the basics, or individuals experiencing prolonged poverty – can access food banks if they don’t have the means to get to the grocery store. While this perception of food banks is generally true, there’s much more to the story of each individual food bank in the Alberta Capital Region.
Any food bank’s key job is to provide individuals in need with food to get them through a time of need, whether it’s a long-term situation or a time of temporary crisis. In reality, however, most food banks end up being much more than a warehouse that simply doles out food.
Food banks have to look at the needs of their community and develop a plan of action that best fits the needs of their clients, while making the most efficient use of available resources and forming partnerships with other local agencies and services. While most communities in the Capital Region see the same kind of client demographics accessing the food banks – a mix of people of all ages and ethnicities with a disproportionate number of children, single parents, and people suffering from mental illness and other health problems – different food banks need to create unique policies and figure out what works best for their area.
Food banks have to look at the needs of their community and develop a plan of action that best fits the needs of their clients.
The Edmonton Food Bank (also known as the Edmonton Gleaners Association) is the largest and most well-known food bank in the region. Providing clients with approximately 15,000 hampers and 350,000 meals and snacks through affiliated agencies every month is not an easy task. With such a large area to serve, the Edmonton Food Bank’s operating policies focus on organization and clear communication with other agencies within the community.
“We’re not here to duplicate the resources and services of others,” says Edmonton Food Bank executive director Marjorie Bencz, who points to the Edmonton Food Bank’s relationships with community kitchens and organizations like the WECAN Food Co-op. “We have so many great networks in place, so creating energy with those partners is important.”
The Edmonton Food Bank distributes food through more than 200 agencies, churches and food depots, rather than distributing solely out of a central location. This not only helps with efficiency, but also makes it easier, both physically and emotionally, for clients to access food.
“For example, it would be very problematic for a family to come all the way from Mill Woods to the Edmonton Food Bank to get food, especially when transportation is a barrier,” Bencz says. “There’s enough stress with living in poverty or when you have a crisis in your household to go through multiple intake processes.”
While the goal in Edmonton is to complement existing agencies and work through them to distribute food, the food bank in St. Albert has a very different mandate. Operating in an area with a smaller population, St. Albert Food Bank director Suzan Krecsy found that families in crisis didn’t always know how to access local social services.
St. Albert is viewed by many as an affluent suburban community, so poverty, mental illness and domestic violence often fall off of many residents’ radars, leaving them unsure of where to turn if they find themselves in need. Since the food bank is often the first place people turned when they found themselves in tough times, it became a de facto intake centre for the city’s other agencies.
To accommodate the function that the food bank was already unofficially serving, Krecsy transformed the facility from a standard food bank into a Community Village, in a renovated space that does much more than provide food. Krecsy hired social worker Fay Lucy to consult clients who have particularly complex needs. Since a lack of food is usually the symptom of a larger problem, the goal is to help clients deal with the root cause of whatever is bringing them into the food bank.
“It’s a very empowering program that we have here,” Krecsy says. “I think within the system a lot of folks are just told what to do and then they have to go and try to figure it out. We’ll walk along with them and support them along the way, but we do empower them.”
Lucy helps clients as needed, be it to personally help young single parents search for jobs or to simply refer people to outside services. The more than 600 families and individuals that the St. Albert Food Bank currently has on file can also access additional in-house services such as a wellness room, mental health services, financial and food literacy help, and a number of other programs.
With the Edmonton Food Bank focusing on the distribution of food and the St. Albert Food Bank filling the necessary gaps in its community, the Leduc and District Food Bank Association falls somewhere in between. The Leduc facility serves a fairly large geographic area within Leduc County, with a population of about 75,000, slightly smaller than that of St. Albert. Gert Reynar, the Leduc Food Bank executive director, has struck a balance between the Edmonton approach of focusing on food distribution and the St. Albert philosophy of offering a more holistic approach to poverty issues.
The Leduc Food Bank distributes a single hamper of food (enough food for 10 to 20 days) to an average of 125 families every month, or almost 600 per year. While the food bank previously had an area where clients could access snacks and other items in between their monthly hampers, the board of directors decided that it was best for the bank to tighten its mandate and focus on what Reynar calls, “the collection of food for those in need and trying to increase the nutritional content of the food.” This doesn’t mean that Reynar simply distributes without any extra services, however. She’s worked to create programs to help her clients stretch the content of their hampers and increase their level of food education.
“You have to be very careful that you don’t enable people to become dependent on the service, but give them the tools to move them forward,” Reynar says. “Giving them the hamper is one thing, but if we can give them the knowledge of how to use it to the best of their abilities, not only have we helped them, but we’ve helped the next generation.”
Reynar brought in a program called A Case for the Basics, a series of classes where clients can learn to enhance the nutritional value and longevity of their monthly hampers. To best stretch her own resources, Reynar takes part in a number of creative funding programs, including picking up the still usable discarded bottles and containers of personal hygiene items from the nearby Edmonton International Airport. The items are also shared with inner city agencies and other food banks. While at the airport, Reynar also collects empty bottles then takes them to the recycling depot and uses the money to buy fresh food for the hampers.
These examples illustrate that even in a single greater municipal area, individual food banks face different challenges, levels of need, and available resources. With creativity, community co-operation, and sensitivity to the needs of their clientele, area food banks have adapted into models that best serve their specific communities.