Food bank braces for surging demand as CERB payments end

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The Wood Buffalo Food Bank is expecting a surge in demand this fall as government supports introduced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic end.

In a Thursday interview, executive director Dan Edwards said he has heard food bank demand has already risen in other communities as the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program finishes at the end of the month.

“I’m foreseeing we will see an increase from that,” said Edwards. “We’re the ones that are still going to be here when everything else that was a temporary fix runs out. That’s what we’re here for.”

A potential second wave in the winter could also pressure the food bank if emergency relief programs do not return.

“Do I foresee increases if we have a second wave? Yes, it’s probably going to impact us,” said Edwards. “I’m always preparing for our numbers to be going up.”

Edwards said it is difficult to gauge how many more clients came to the food bank when COVID-19 lockdowns triggered panic buying and job losses in March.


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Initially, the food bank warned some hampers would be smaller than usual as demand soared. If services once again surges, that could happen again.

“If we have to adjust the size of our hampers slightly, we may go down that road,” said Edwards. “Until then, we’ll take it one day at a time and see what the community does to support us and keep us going.”

Even before the pandemic, the food bank was already seeing demand increase when global oil prices crashed.

This past January, Edwards said 868 hampers were distributed across Wood Buffalo. This is an increase of roughly 100 from the same period in 2019.

As low oil prices and COVID-19 lockdowns caused more job losses, the food bank switched from distributing monthly hampers to weekly hampers in April.

When the food bank’s main downtown location flooded in late April, services ran out of Fort City Church in Thickwood and a warehouse in Gregoire.

Eventually, demand slowed as more people qualified for CERB payments, said Edwards. The food bank also switched back to a monthly model earlier this summer.

The organization now runs out of Gregoire while its downtown location is repaired.

The Wood Buffalo Food Bank’s location on King Street in Fort McMurray’s downtown on April 27, 2020. Photo by Supplied image/ Brad Allan

The food bank has also continued delivering hampers in Wood Buffalo’s rural hamlets and First Nation communities, which were already facing food insecurity issues. Anzac and Fort Chipewyan, for instance, are the only rural communities with proper grocery stores.

Most rural communities have restricted access to essential services only, which includes food bank volunteers.


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When food bank staff arrive in the communities, hampers will be dropped off and community members will distribute them to clients.

“We’re working with them. We don’t want to be coming into their community anymore than we have to,” said Edwards. “We want to respect their wishes of not having these outside factors come in for extended periods of time, potentially exposing them to us and us to them.”

The continued presence of the virus, which is expected to last into the new year, will also challenge how the food bank raises funds and donation.

Annual fundraisers, such as its in-person spring food drive in April, moved online. Other events, such as the Empty Bowls Festival, are cancelled.

For now, donations have been steady, although they are usually slower during summer months. Edwards predicts the strong community support seen around Thanksgiving and Christmas will continue this year.

“Something unique to Fort McMurray is even when we’re down and out and have nothing, we search our pockets and find ways to give back,” he said.

Information on volunteering or donating to the Wood Buffalo Food Bank can be found at the organization’s website.