COVID-19 decimated the Calgary Food Bank's depot system. Now it's slowly coming back

·4 min read
People in Redstone, a community in northeast Calgary, stand in line to collect food hampers in early December 2021. (Bryan Labby/CBC - image credit)
People in Redstone, a community in northeast Calgary, stand in line to collect food hampers in early December 2021. (Bryan Labby/CBC - image credit)

Plantains, rice, flour — dozens of residents lined up to get the basics at a church in Calgary's far northeast where help is delivered by an informal group of volunteers.

The generosity was literally overflowing: some people struggled with the bins, opting to drag them across the gymnasium floor toward the exit.

"This is a big, big relief," said Catherine Nformi, one of the first to pick up a hamper loaded with basic food staples.

"Everything is so expensive and with a bigger family, I'm so grateful."

A new food bank depot was expected at this location last summer, but those plans fell through due mostly to staffing changes and a breakdown in communication. The food bank has since apologized to the community.

The pandemic forced the Calgary Food Bank's community partners to shutter most of their depots. The food bank along its partners are now rebuilding that network.

In the meantime, the church and neighbourhood volunteers are helping, with people donating food and money.

Some people in the far northeast communities of Redstone, Cityscape and Cornerstone have been struggling since the onset of COVID-19. Some are no longer working. Others have seen their hours reduced and their savings dwindle — all a time when food and other costs are rising.

The communities include new Canadians, immigrants and refugees, some of whom can't easily access food banks or other support agencies.

Bryan Labby/CBC
Bryan Labby/CBC

The Genesis Centre in the northeast has a food bank depot, but it's about nine kilometres away and transit service is not always an option. Calgary's main food bank location in the southeast is 30 kilometres away.

"In the community of Redstone we found out that people that may be in need of food … have lots of hiccups in accessing food," said Grace Udofia, a volunteer with the Oasis of Grace Family and Multicultural Centre.

"Imagine a mother that has need, has to dress their child, push a trolley and carry a food hamper and stay on a bus for almost two hours. That's a lot of barriers to get food to eat.… So we decided to come together to provide food for people in this community."

Udofia, who sits on the centre's non-profit board, thought they had a deal with the Calgary Food Bank to set up a depot in their community this past summer.

Bryan Labby/CBC
Bryan Labby/CBC

The CEO of the food bank offered a mea culpa.

"For the Redstone group, we apologize; we dropped the ball," said James McAra.

He says the conversations between his organization and the centre were disrupted by staffing changes and an agreement was never finalized.

"I think that the communication on our part could be better and that's what we're working on," he said.

Depot disruptions

McAra says prior to 2020, the Calgary Food Bank and its partners operated more than 20 food depots across the city. At one point during the pandemic, health orders to close the depots reduced the number to four. It's currently back up to 14 with plans to slowly expand, possibly into Redstone.

But he says the food bank has to restart conversations with old and new partners before anything is set up. He says they need to know how many hampers will be needed, how they'll be distributed and who will do that. He says they also need to know whether the food will be stored on site and whether there will be access to other services or supports.

"We would not open a depot at the drop of a hat," he said. "It's not a phone call, where you say, 'We're just going to start doing this today.' There's food safety involved. There's connection to the community; there's all those things that need to happen to make sure that it's sustainable."

Bryan Labby/CBC
Bryan Labby/CBC

"This is a complex intermingling of things where we look at it and go, 'What is the best that we can do with the limited resources we have?'"

McAra says they've tried to innovate to get food to people who've lost their depot or can't travel to the other locations. He says nearby locations can be shared digitally with clients, who can also send a QR code to request delivery.

He can't provide a timeline on a possible depot for the group in Redstone, but says they will restart the conversation.

In the meantime, the community will continue to rely on donations to put together as many hampers as it can.

"What we're trying to do is impact lives by making a little difference in their life situations," said Godspowero Ojeabuleu, who is also with the community centre in Redstone.

Grace Udofia is hopeful an agreement with the food bank can be reached in the new year.

"That will really, really go a long way to help," she said.

CBC Calgary: The High Cost of Food

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Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.

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