There is never a good time to be food insecure—however, the holiday season can be extra difficult for those in needespecially in the wake of a global pandemic.  

“COVID-19 has brought a new set of financial challenges to so many people in this city,” explains Hailey Helset, Agency/Depot Engagement Manager at Edmonton’s Food Bank. “During the holidays, those challenges tend to be compounded—particularly for families.”   

Families like Grace, Emanuel, and their two young children. 

“Food banks are more than just food, we’re a community,” says Hailey. “So, when people show up at our doors because they don’t know where else to go, we do whatever we can to support them. That was the case when Grace reached out to us. Her husband Emanuel was laid off the week before Christmas and it was a friend that directed her to Edmonton’s Food Bank.” 

Not knowing what to expect, Grace ended up being overwhelmed when she learned about the contents of a food hamper her family would be receiving. 

Hailey recounts what happened next, “One of our volunteers was explaining to Grace that in addition to canned goods, pastas, cereal, and soup, that her hamper would also be packed with fresh produce, baked goods, and dairy products. The relief and excitement in Grace’s voice was palpable, You are going to change our lives—we can make it now, she exclaimed. No words can possibly describe how amazing it feels to make that kind of positive impact. That’s the importance of what we do.”  

Helping Edmonton’s Food Bank to give that gift of joy came in the form of some much-needed emergency food packs. 

“It’s with the support of Food Banks Canada, and the emergency food packs they provided, that we were able to offer families a broader variety of non-perishable goods in their hampers,” says Hailey. “If there’s one positive outcome from the pandemic, I think it’s the fact that we’ve realized just how much we can get done when we all come together as one. Together we’ve adapted, we’ve overcome, and together we’ll continue to support our community the best way we can.” 

Edmonton’s Food Bank feeds over 21,000 people each month, in addition to facilitating community-building relationships with 250+ agencies, schools, and churches within the city of Edmonton. 

During the past year, there is one thing people have been craving more than food.  

“And that’s kindness,” says Dianne MacDonnell, Program Coordinator at the Hope Food Bank in British Columbia. “Right now so many people are struggling due to the pandemic—some more than others. In fact, we’ve had a significant number of new faces show up at our doors, which is a difficult thing to see. Especially when you consider that food insecurity and mental health go hand in hand.” 

According to Dianne, that’s where showing empathy and exercising a bit of patience can make a real difference in someone’s life. 

“Never underestimate the power of kindness,” continues Dianne. “This reminds me of a family of four that live fairly close to our food bank, but were nervous about going out because of COVID. So, they signed up to receive weekly hamper deliveries. But then one day the mother of the family decided to drop in to see what other types of foods we had (that perhaps weren’t being included in the deliveries).” 

That’s when the mother was blown away by a few surprises that Dianne had in store for her. 

“Since we receive a lot of recovered food from our local grocery stores, the mother was super excited to see the amount of quality produce I was able to put in her hamper,” recalls Dianne. “In addition to the produce, I also had a bunch of grocery gift cards on hand, so I gave her one for each member of the family. When I handed them over, I’ll never forget her reaction. She started shaking and said, for real, for real, I honestly get this?’ And then the tears started streaming down her face, which made me cry. It was a very emotional moment and I was just so happy to be in a position to do that for her.” 

The funds to purchase those grocery gift cards, along with a ton of food, came courtesy of Food Banks Canada. 

“When COVID hit, we were like a deer in headlights,” explains Dianne. “However, Food Banks Canada fortunately had some grant opportunities, which we were able to access quite quickly. Being small, we don’t have a lot of money, so the funds we received from those grants were a definite godsend—to us and to every single person in our community that relies on the Hope Food Bank.” 

The Hope Food Bank currently has 675 registered households that access the food bank and they serve 300 every month—the largest of which consisting of 13 family members. 

The drawn out nature of the pandemic has left people of all ages feeling increasingly isolated. 

“It’s been an exceptionally difficult time for the kids,” says Inuvik Food Bank Chair Angela McInnes. “Children need that interaction with their friends. However, when it became evident after 7 months of lockdowns and social distancing that there wasn’t going to be a Halloween, we as a food bank decided that the young people in our community had enough disappointment due to COVID.” 

That’s when Angela and her fellow food bankers decided to take Halloween into their own hands. 

“We came up with the idea of handing out treat bags—but with a twist,” explains Angela. “Instead of being packed full of sweets, we opted to give out packages of fruit, yogurt, and juice boxes. Then on the Friday before Halloween, we opened up the food bank to the community. Kids came along with their parents, as did the elders and everyone was beyond thrilled. That’s because for a few brief moments they were all able to take a break from reality and have a good time. It was my absolute favourite thing that we did last year because of how much it meant to everybody.” 

One particularly fond memory of that day for Angela involved a young girl and pomegranate. 

“To add variety to our healthy treat bags, we bought cases of pomegranates,” continues Angela. “My daughter was pretty skeptical of the choice, making a point to tell me that nobody was going to know what a pomegranate is. Then this little girl came in. She was very shy at first—until she took one of the bags, looked inside and screamed, ‘mom, it’s a pomegranate, it’s a pomegranate!’ Not only did this little girl know what a pomegranate was, she was super excited about it. I’ll never let my daughter live that down.” 

Being able to hold this event for the community was especially meaningful for the IFB 

“Before the pandemic swept in, we were almost at a point of having to close our doors,” states Angela. “Both money and food were running out, as were our options. But then emergency COVID funding started flowing in from Food Banks Canada. Now we’re in a better place financially, which has enabled us to stock up and give out the types of foods we were never able to before. Fresh goods such as cheese and butter, along with another item our clients are always raving about—coffee. The elders are extra appreciative of the coffee because it’s an item they can’t always afford to purchase on their pension. It’s little things like that, which, amidst all of the struggling and anxiety, offers individuals a beacon of hope. Something the entire world could use right about now.” 

Imagine your livelihood revolves around food and then suddenly, you find yourself in the position of not having enough money to feed your family. 

That was the unfortunate reality for Brandon and Sarah*, a husband and wife team running a restaurant in Kamloops, BC. “When COVID hit, I think many people realized that it could be them lining up at a food bank,” says Bernadette Siracky, Executive Director of the Kamloops Food Bank.  

“But I never thought in a million years that ‘them’ would be us,” continues Brandon.  

His wife, Sarah, concurs. “It’s definitely something I’ll never forget. I was in the eerily quiet kitchen of our restaurant—packing up the remaining food to take to the Kamloops Food Bank (as the first round of lockdown orders came into effect). Having gone through the anguish of laying off our staff, we were determined to do anything to keep our business alive. So, we continued to pay our bills and remained hopeful that the temporary closure would have a quick end.” 

However, as the lockdown went on, the longer their restaurant remained closed. 

“Eventually we needed to ask for help,” continues Brandon. “As someone who owns a restaurant and provides for their family, it was very difficult to accept that fact. However, our nerves were instantly calmed the moment we arrived (at the food bank). The staff greeted us with warmth and there was an instant feeling of community, which was very reassuring.” 

Helping to fuel that reassurance was the support the KFB received from Food Banks Canada. 

“COVID forced our hand to completely change the way we operate,” says Bernadette in closing. “Food Banks Canada enabled us to hit the ground running by not only recognizing what our challenges were, but provided us with the funding to overcome those challenges. This meant we could cover essential things such as PPE (personal protective equipment), extra staff, and additional food storage. The support we received was very timely. Most importantly, Food Banks Canada took the worry away so that we could continue providing hope during a time when people needed it most—and that means the world to us.” 

The Kamloops Food Bank serves over 6,000 people, 54 community agencies, and 9 regional food banks. 

*Names have been changed to protect their privacy 

Due to COVID-19, millions of Canadians from coast-to-coast now have a very real snapshot into what food insecurity looks like.

Empty grocery store shelves at the pandemic meant people suddenly couldn’t access certain foods they needed, or wanted. However, when food insecurity is something you’re facing for the first time, hearing about local food shortages can be a scary thing—as is the prospect of reaching out for help.

John Bailey, CEO of the Regina Food Bank goes on to explain.

“Many of the new faces we’ve seen over the past year have found it difficult to overcome the initial stigma of turning to a food bank,” says John. “One particular person stands out—a young woman named Astrid* who works in the service industry. When COVID hit, both Astrid and her partner were laid off.”

With no savings and a young child to provide for, Astrid reluctantly turned to the RFB.

“Astrid had difficulty reconciling the fact that she needed to turn to a food bank,” recalls John. “Don’t get me wrong, she was also extremely grateful we were there to help. But what finally made Astrid happy in the end was when she no longer needed our services. That made me and my team pretty happy as well—because every food bank wants to get smaller, not bigger.”

As the Regina Food Bank works towards that goal, the assistance they received from Food Banks Canada has enabled them to continue supporting their community, uninterrupted.

“At the start of the pandemic, the supply chain had really dried up,” explains John. “Food Banks Canada was able to navigate that particular challenge for us more effectively than even some of our wholesale partners. Thanks to Food Banks Canada stepping up with the strength of a national network, we were able to provide folks here in Regina with quality food—and that was just incredible.”

While the journey to conquer COVID and the stigma of food insecurity is ongoing, John offers a positive outlook for the road ahead.

“Although the pandemic has tested Astrid and the rest of us in ways we could never have imagined, I truly believe that our capacity for resilience is far greater than we ever thought possible.”

The Regina Food Bank typically serves 80,000 people a year—that number pushed in excess of 110,000 in 2020 due to the pandemic. *Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.