By Trevor Busch
With the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic creating food security issues for Canadians from coast to coast, local food banks have been scrambling to keep up with increased demand and declining donations.
With many families in Taber struggling due to lack of employment and income, food insecurity has increased and the demand at the Taber Food Bank is high. Public donations have decreased with financial insecurity in many homes, and federal and provincial funding is currently uncertain as to how much the local food bank might receive.
“We are all affected by the current pandemic crisis, some much more than others,” said Kevin Leahy, president of the Taber Food Bank Society, during town council’s April 27 meeting. “I want to relate to you how this crisis has changed our operations at the Taber Food Bank. In mid-March when the stay at home order was given, we immediately changed our services by locking the doors to the public. We knew we had to limit our exposure for our staff members, volunteers and clients. We implemented very rigorous sanitation standards and distancing measures. Many of our volunteers fall into the high risk group, but we are only utilizing a small number of people on a rotating schedule with a maximum of three volunteers per day.”
Although the numbers aren’t finalized, in March the food bank issued hampers to 174 families (up from previous months) and filled 72 requests for bags of groceries through the Pickshelf Program. Statistics from February show 100 hampers issued between 122 adults, 46 children, and 12 seniors.
“Families anxiously wait for the provincial and federal emergency resources, but they are aware they will face budgetary shortfalls,” stated Tamara Miyanaga in an email as part of Leahy’s presentation. “I expect these families will turn to the food bank to fill their basic needs. We have already seen a 74 per cent increase from February to March. The food bank operates on the generosity of donors. Volunteers are the life line, however high risk health scenarios and social distancing have created new challenges to meet the demand. The federal and provincial government have indicated support for food banks. It is imperative funding reach rural food banks like Taber and Vauxhall. It is important we support and help our food banks. The demands they are facing is unprecedented. They are the front line workers who meet the needs of the hungry.”
Leahy’s presentation to council included several written statements from Taber Food Bank managers regarding the current situation at the local food bank.
“We have seen a dramatic decrease in monetary and food donations. Many of our previous monetary donations came from small businesses. With limits on individuals buying food, food donations are now almost non-existent. Our morning food donations from Co-op and IGA are a fraction of what we usually receive. Co-op and IGA normally provide day-old bread, meat, vegetables and unsaleable food items. Co-op and IGA have not been able to get the amounts we order on many items. They have both been really great working with us, trying to get what they can.”
Volunteering has also been subject to a number of restrictions to protect public health and and reduce the spread of the virus.
“We have limited our number of volunteers due to health concerns (many are seniors) and due to not spreading the virus. We are being cautious on taking new volunteers with trying to stay safe and healthy. We have two volunteers lined up in the case that staff and/or volunteers become sick or have to self isolate. Both volunteers are familiar with our operation. In the event the above should happen, we have 100 dry hampers pre-made. If the demand did double, at present, we have enough staff and volunteers to keep up, however we would not have an adequate food supply.”
Leahy is expecting demand to rise and donations to decline at the local food bank, a state of affairs that strains the resources of the organization. In 2019, the food bank distributed 1,464 hampers, supporting 1,987 adults and 1,052 children.
“Our over-the-counter donations — which must be pre-arranged — are negligible right now, which means we are purchasing food from the grocery store, the same as you or I…because of these changes, we are estimating our next three months of combined costs to be over $43,000 in food and wages, double what it would normally be.”
Luckily, the food bank is projecting an influx of fresh produce in 2020 from the Vegetable Garden on Huckleberry Road, but Leahy suggested the loss of the Stuff-a-Bus donation drive and Cornfest funding donations will have a significant impact on operations this year.
“What do we foresee for the future? That’s the $54,000 question — no one really knows. But we predict our usage will be up by as much as 50 per cent as people experience food insecurity.”
Rather than a one-time cash donation, Leahy was more interested in marshaling council’s support for food banks acquiring annual financial contributions from the federal and provincial governments.
“While money is always graciously appreciated, however we would also appreciate if the town can apply pressure to our provincial government. In the past, the provincial government has never provided funding for food banks. Not once. Yet they direct their clients to us.”
Through a mixture of provincial announcements, Leahy indicated the food bank had applied for $18,000 through one program (which cannot be not be applied to food purchases) and $30,000 through another which can be used for food and wages.
Leahy also confirmed the food bank had been approved for $15,000 from the province, but it is unclear when they will receive these funds. As for the $100 million recently announced federally to assist food banks, Leahy believes this will amount to roughly $3,200 locally.
“I’m not here to cry poverty with you guys. This is an awareness of what’s going on, what could change. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three to five, six months — maybe it’s longer. We could be crying poverty in six months. I don’t want to do that. It’s an awareness for you guys.”
Councillors Jack Brewin and Joe Strojwas stated their reluctance for the town to provide any additional financial contribution to the food bank in favour of offering political support, and while Mayor Andrew Prokop did indicate his preference for including a financial component to any resolution, nothing was allocated in the final motion which passed unanimously.
The motion directs administration to prepare a letter to be submitted to MLA Grant Hunter and MP Martin Shields stating the case for annual financial contributions for food banks at the provincial and federal levels.
Administration’s original recommended motion had suggested making a financial contribution to the food bank, but it did not recommend how much.
The Taber Food Bank Society recently received a $50,000 donation from McCain’s to assist with the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.