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Food banks meeting increasing demand

Communities have stepped up to support the two local food banks
WW-Oilfields Food Bank BWC 2182 web
Karen Milne stands amongst the Oilfields Food Bank Association's aisles of food at the United Church in the Valley on Oct. 30.

Like much of Alberta, local food banks say they have seen more people coming in as the pandemic continues to put a strain on finances.

According to Food Banks Canada’s Hunger Count, which was released last week, food bank usage was up 29.6 per cent in Alberta, one of the highest increases in the country.

Oilfields Food Bank volunteer Karen Milne said what they are seeing is similar to what is being reported across the Province.

“So, for instance, since the beginning of January we have had 39 first time users, which is a record for us,” Milne said. “And this is our busiest September in the last four years.”

So far this year the Oilfields Food Bank has served 494 more adults, 84 more than last year and 306 children - double the number of 2020.

“We are smack in the middle of oil and gas country and it is just not lucrative right now,” said Milne, adding people are having to make choices between paying the bills and buying food.

People living in the rural and more remote areas also often have no choice but to have a vehicle to get to work and the rising cost of fuel is also putting pressure on finances.

Food bank volunteers accessed two grants to buy an additional freezer to help meet the demand.

“We are trying to keep up our capacity to keep frozen meats on hand because we are seeing increased demand,” she said.

The firefighter’s food drive for the Oilfields Food Bank could not go ahead again this year due to COVID restrictions.

Despite having their main fundraiser cancelled, Milne said they have been able to continue providing food for everyone that needs it.

The firefighters have been regularly picking up food donations at drop off spots at the AG Foods and the library and delivering it to the food bank. Milne said donations have continued to be steady.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from the community since they heard the food drive is cancelled again,” she said.

The Okotoks Food Bank has also helped get them through, Milne said.

“The Okotoks Food Bank is now a distribution hub,” she said. “Outlying areas with excess send it to distribution hubs and they redistribute it.”

Pamela McLean, executive director of the Okotoks Food Bank said they expedited their plan radically to become a hub distribution point when the pandemic hit.

“Now that we are a hub food bank, our access to food has tripled,” she said. “Now we have access to 40,000 pounds of food and we are distributing about 15,000 pounds per month.”

In Okotoks the food bank has seen a drastic fluctuation in its usage. McLean said last year in early spring when the pandemic measures were at their strictest, their numbers went way down. However, recently it has seen a spike.

“From July to September of 2021 we had a 75 per cent demand increase,” she said.

More people are also using the Help Yourself Shelves program and are even driving from Calgary to pick up food.

“That particular program, since September, we have had 9,000 people,”  McLean said. “Before October we usually around 10-15 people per day now it is 25-30 people per day.”

Both food banks are now preparing to hand out even more Christmas hampers than usual. People can apply for a Christmas hamper online or in person. McLean said they are asking their clients to register themselves for a Christmas hamper.