The economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is triggering a very worrisome social crisis. Daily, there are more and more people who find themselves in desperate situations caused by total or a very severe loss of income. To many families, hunger was already a reality—their lives were difficult long before coronavirus and their situation has only worsened. Without money, without prospects for the future, without light at the end of the tunnel, these fellow human beings need society to notice them, now more than ever. We need to stop and help.
In this interview with Taylor Barker, public relations for Food Banks Canada, we get a very close portrait of a society that is very different from what we would normally associate with a first world country. It is clear that we must remain united and in solidarity. We must help those who are in need. We all understand how this equation of giving and receiving works—those who give receive more because they are taken to a new level of comfort and abundance—the feeling that they are doing good.
Milénio Stadium: How have food banks been impacted by COVID-19?
Taylor Barker: Before the COVID-19 pandemic even started, we were already seeing more than 1M visits in one month to a food bank. Since the start of this crisis, however, some food banks have reported seeing a surge in demand all while facing significant challenges like:
Drastic reductions in volunteers due to an older volunteer base who is in the “at risk” category for COVID-19 as well as a reduction in staff due to self-isolation precautions, quarantining or having to care for children at home;
Having to modify operations and in some cases hire extra staff for evolving social distancing needs;
Up to a 50% drop in food donations in some markets.
MS: What are food banks doing to protect their employees, volunteers and clients?
TB: Food Banks Canada has closely monitored the COVID-19 situation throughout the pandemic and has recommended that food banks take the relevant precautionary measures in line with guidelines issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada and the World Health Organization.
Specifically, we have shared best practices and guidance with food banks at the local level to help them adapt their operations for social distancing, such as moving to providing pre-packed hampers, delivery off conveyor belts or drive-thru/curb side pick-up (when possible), as well as taken increased sanitary precautions.
To minimize the amount of human contact with the public, the food bank network has made significant changes in how these food packages are delivered to food bank clients. Some of these changes include:
Moving to pre-packaged hampers vs. the grocery model where food bank visitors are allowed to choose their food;
Consolidating distribution centres, and;
Instituted home and curb side deliveries.
MS: With a pandemic affecting the entire world, there have been a lot of people losing jobs and being left with no source of income. Have food banks felt the difference in terms of demand?
TB: Interestingly, but not surprising, some regions have reported surges in demand while others have yet to see an increase in need for food banks. And there are very specific reasons for this. First, the government has introduced a number of immediate support measures to help people sustain themselves and their households through these challenging times, which we believe is why food banks in certain communities like parts of Nova Scotia have yet to see a significant increase in demand. While other factors have impacted the rate of food bank use in places like the northern part of Saskatchewan, which have also not yet experienced the full impact of this COVID-19 crisis. We believe this is a result of reduced weekly trips due to significant self-isolation measures being taken by many reserve communities to avoid further infection. But then we have cases like the food bank in Whistler, B.C., which went from normally seeing 50 visits in a week to 300 since this crisis began.
It’s quite difficult to compare the need now to what it’s going to be early next year once the government support measures have subsided, but we know from experience that as this crisis persists the demand will only continue to surge. And we need to prepare for that.
MS: Schools are closed and many children depend on programs offered to receive meals. How are they getting daily food now?
TB: At Food Banks Canada we run a program called After the Bell, which is dedicated to ending child hunger. Essentially, when school nutrition programs end for the summer months, After the Bell fills that gap by providing child-friendly, healthy food packs that are distributed by food banks to children experiencing food insecurity across Canada.
But this year, amid mandatory school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most school nutrition programs shut down early so we started the program earlier, running from May-September rather than just over the summer as has been the case in past years. And this year we sent out a record 130,000 food packs, and were even able to reach Iqaliut, Nunavut with this program for the first time ever thanks to donors.
MS: If someone needs help to get food, can they come to food banks?
TB: We support nearly 3,000 food banks and community agencies across Canada. If you, or someone you know, needs support, you can find the nearest food bank to you by visiting foodbankscanada.ca and using the “Find a food bank” search tool at the top of the page.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be best to review the food bank’s guidelines online or by calling before you do go. Some have had to switch to appointment only pick-ups to ensure proper social distancing guidelines are followed.
MS: Are people now more aware of others’ needs and willing to help more?
TB: We have seen amazing support from people across the country as well as our corporate partners and private foundations. In fact, back in March we had announced our fundraising goal of $150M to help strengthen the food supply for our communities’ most vulnerable as we prepare for the economic impact of this crisis. To date, we have received $110M in donations and while we are very thankful for this generosity shown by our fellow Canadians, we know that we can’t stop yet. We need to be prepared to deal with the uncertainty as we begin to emerge from the pandemic.
MS: What’s the best way to help food banks right now?
TB: The best way to support food banks right now is by donating financially at our fundraising site, iate.ca. We can make each dollar go further because we can buy food in bulk working with independent farmers, agricultural associations, producers and manufacturers. We can also direct the donations to the food banks across Canada that need it the most to meet the need in their communities at the local level.