Episode 140: More Than Food

On this episode, our correspondent, Aubrianna Snow, learns about how Edmonton’s Food Bank goes beyond food to support community members.

Edmonton’s Food Bank was the very first food bank to  open in Canada, and has been tackling food insecurity since 1981. They provide food and other assistance to thousands of people each month. In the course of a year, the food bank distributes about 6 million kilograms of food. This is help for thousands of individuals and families struggling with food insecurity.

In December 2022, Edmonton Community Foundation was able to provide Edmonton’s Food Bank with a BIPOC Grant to help bring in more options for culturally relevant foods.

On top of all the food and necessities the food bank provides, they also have a program called “Beyond Food” to help people develop skills for employment.

Learn more about Edmonton’s Food Bank.
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Find out more about ECF’s BIPOC Grants.

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The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation. And is a proud, affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Image for this episode was supplied by Edmonton’s Food Bank.

Transcripts by Karli Drew.


[The Well Endowed Podcast theme music plays]

Shereen Zink [00:00:25] Hi everyone. Welcome to The Well Endowed Podcast. I’m Shereen Zink.

Graeme Lummer [00:00:28] And I’m Graeme...

Lummer. This podcast is brought to you by Edmonton Community Foundation. We are a proud affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Shereen [00:00:36] Edmonton is full of generous donors who’ve created endowment funds at ECF. These funds are carefully stewarded to generate money that supports charities in Edmonton and beyond.

Graeme [00:00:45] On this podcast, we share stories about how these funds help strengthen our community… because it’s good to be well endowed.

Shereen [00:00:50] On this episode, we learn about how Edmonton’s Food Bank goes beyond food to support community members.

Graeme [00:00:56] Edmonton’s Food Bank has been tackling food security since 1981. And as a testament to Edmonton’s community spirit, it was actually the first food bank to ever open in Canada.

Shereen [00:01:05] Yeah. Thousands of people use the Food Bank every month and over the course of a year, they distribute about 6 million kilograms of food.

Graeme [00:01:12] That is a lot of food. And even with that volume, community demand has increased significantly in recent years due to the pandemic and other stressors facing communities in Edmonton.

Shereen [00:01:22] Yeah, it’s been tough, for sure. Um. But fortunately, we’ve seen so many community partners step up to help fill the need. Recently, Edmonton Community Foundation was able to provide Edmonton’s Food Bank with a BIPOC grant that helped bring in a bunch of options for culturally appropriate foods for them, which is so good to see.

Graeme [00:01:38] This is awesome because culturally relevant food just goes so far beyond nutrition.

Shereen [00:01:42] Yeah, absolutely. There is so much more to it, um, that has a lot to do with community. It helps people come together. It’s really comforting. It gives them a bit of a taste of home, um, and it really makes a big impact, um, especially when people are newcomers to the country.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

Graeme [00:01:55] Absolutely. But this Food Bank does more than provide food and necessities. It also has a program to help people develop their safety skills for employment. Our correspondent, Aubrianna Snow, finds out more.

Aubrianna Snow [00:02:06] The Edmonton Food Bank has been providing for Edmontonians in need since 1981, serving as a central warehouse and accommodating the food needs of countless individuals and organizations in the community. Usage of the Food Bank has gone up over the course of the pandemic, but the need is greater than current donations can keep up with. I spoke with Marjorie Bencz, Executive Director of the Edmonton Food Bank, about the programs they offer, the year ahead, and some of the challenges they’re facing.

So, Marjorie, can you tell me a little bit about the Edmonton Food Bank and how it functions?

Marjorie Bencz [00:02:36] Edmonton’s Food Bank is a central warehouse and we collect and redistribute food to over 300 soup kitchens, shelters, schools, and other community programs. That role is a central warehouse where we work with other organizations. Like, so if— uh, Islamic Family and Social Services does great work around wraparound services. So, we provide as much food as we can to them and then they do the heavy lifting of helping people with other services in the community in case of [inaudible], it’s culturally relevant. So they do this great service and we provide the food so they don’t have to be sourcing food, they don’t have to be worrying about food, and we can help them move people to a place where they’re more food secure.

And as an organization, we glean about 60% of our food from the food industry. So, we pick up breads and pastries, fruits and vegetables. We get vegetables from local gardeners. Like, any kind of surplus that we can tap into, we’re trying to do that and that’s 60% of our food source. We don’t have a say in what that food source looks like.

[00:03:56] It can be feast or famine. It can be lots of turnips or no turnips. It can be lots of apples, it could be no apples. So it is a matter of people understanding that there are limitations with our work. It’s not the same as having money for people to go and buy their own food from a grocery store and make selection about what kind of coffee they want or what kind of tea they want, what kind of vegetable or fruit they want. That’s why it’s really important that all of us continue to advocate for change as well. Not only making sure that people can have access to, you know, local food wherever possible and that we’re aware of food, but also that they have adequate income that they can go and buy their own food.

Aubrianna [00:04:41] The Food Bank has a long history of providing food for those in need in this city. And how do you think the pandemic has affected that need?

Marjorie [00:04:48] Like everyone that’s gone through the last few years and the pandemic, it’s changed over time. At one point there was a lot of response from different levels of government. For example, the CERB was quickly rolled out by the federal government to help people deal with food insecurity and job loss and all the other moving parts that happened early on in the pandemic when we were in such very uncertain times. There was points when different levels of government, again, were trying to respond to what they saw as communities by providing resources to food banks and other organizations to provide food security programs. Again, as we move through the pandemic, the situation has changed. Of course, it was challenging for government to be providing that level of support to individuals and to groups. And over time— and again just as a broad general statement, that those support systems had changed and dried up.

[00:05:53] And then, of course, as we move further through the pandemic, sort of the latter half of 2022, we saw where people were food insecure. They were still maybe unemployed because of the pandemic or more and more organizations that had previously seen funds from different levels of government to fulfill these needs, all started turning to Edmonton’s Food Bank and larger food banks in Canada trying to fill that gap. So there’s been a lot of moving parts for us as we’ve moved through the pandemic.

Aubrianna [00:06:29] And what kind of year is the Edmonton Food Bank expecting in 2023?

Marjorie [00:06:33] At the end of November, the Province of Alberta made this big announcement that twenty million dollars was going to food banks and other civil society organizations. And we received $280,000 in November and we applied for a matching grant, which is 50,000, which is a maximum. And again, we appreciate that support, but the reality is that our organization is able to do the work we do because of the contributions of the public and their ongoing support. And to give you a sense of it, it was over thirty million dollars worth of product that came into our organization and out to people in need and out to the 300 organizations out there in the community. So it really is about… the businesses and community groups and is about the individuals that are helping us out.

[00:07:26] So, certainly, you’re reflecting on what some of the trends we saw happening in the latter half, basically, of 2022. We saw more and more people requesting food from us. More and more agencies returning to us for food. And our donors, whether they were corporate or individuals, whether they were donating food or money, have all been very generous. And we appreciate all their great support. Our volunteers have been really great troopers through this whole process.

The challenge we’re having is that the gifts of food are being outstripped by demand. So the growth that we’ve seen in requests for food, whether it be from individuals or from agencies, is not sustainable at this time through our current donor base and supporters. And we have a great group of people helping us and we truly appreciate everything they do. It’s just that the demand is growing so quickly.

[00:08:29] So moving into 2023, we’re more concerned that this trend will continue. There’s more conversations about even deeper recession or inflation and both hit low income people way harder than they hit anyone else. And then we’re also seeing supply chain issues and other uncertainty in the world. I think we have to keep framing this in the hopeful way, but all of us will have to be more strategic about food and where it’s coming from, how we use it, and all those things related to food.

Aubrianna [00:09:06] Can you tell me a little bit about the Beyond Food program?

Marjorie [00:09:10] So the Beyond Food program is, really, a collaborative with some other organizations here in Edmonton, including The Learning Centre. And it is, really, trying to help people secure employment or have other options versus turning to the Food Bank. Because if we provide a hamper that helps somebody out for a few days, but it’s not really changing their reality and making them more food secure over time. So the Beyond Food program helps people with job searches, interview skills. We— Because of generous support from the Edmonton Community Foundation, we’re able to buy some safety tickets for people. So we might be able to help somebody get a free WHMIS ticket plus a forklift ticket and that might help them secure employment.

[00:10:01] Right now we’ve been doing quite a bit of work with people arriving from the Ukraine and helping them with connections to ESL, but in some cases, our team has been helping them with some very basic English conversations so that they can actually even enter into an ESL course. Uh, we’ve also been helping Ukrainians with, again, getting some safety tickets and upgrading their resume so that they can obtain employment. ‘Cause if somebody is employed, then the chances that they need the Food Bank drops substantially. Giving people volunteer opportunities sometimes, in some situations, helps them become more confident and learning’s a little bit more about the culture that we have in Edmonton and Alberta, creating friendships and relationships, but also that confidence that they can go out and possibly secure a job. Because living wages always enter the conversation, but if you haven’t got a job, then you can’t even have a conversation about living wages, right?

Aubrianna [00:11:07] Can you tell me a bit about the options that are available for folks who might have specific dietary needs, whether that’s medical or cultural?

Marjorie [00:11:15] So, that is probably a bigger challenge for us now than it was a couple of years ago because of the sheer number of people needing us, so we don’t have the same diversity in our supply as well. And so, we do provide— or do the best we can in providing hampers for diabetics, celiacs. We have “no pork” options or vegetarian options in our hampers, but again, it’s not a robust system. Again, it’s not the same as going into a grocery store.

We also do baby formula, um, diapers, and pet food and those types of things. But again, in the context of it’s not the same as a shopping experience, but we will do our best if we have inventory to provide whatever support we can in those circumstances. We do see sometimes requests for higher protein for health reasons as well. So, on the hamper side, we try to do that. And then if we’re working with our groups out there in the community, we try to do that as well. So, at Christmas, we have the option of turkeys or Halal chicken.

Aubrianna [00:12:26] So what does the future hold for the Edmonton Food Bank beyond 2023?

Marjorie [00:12:31] Given all the number of— magnitude of things happening to us right now, we certainly hope to see less people needing our hampers and a community that’s a little bit more food secure. We are going to be expanding our Beyond Food program and hopefully we can, again, get more people through that program and help them with everything, whether it’s getting their income tax done to make sure that they’re getting the full benefits that they’re entitled to from governments to more job help because we are limited ’cause we have such a small team. So we’re hoping to expand that a little bit more.

[00:13:09] We’re hoping to do a little work around garden plots and you know, the community kitchen aspect so that people increase people’s food literacy versus just handing out food. All of these programs, of course, because we’ve been hit so hard as an organization, just trying to keep the wheels turning on this beast and getting the food moving that has really limited how creative we can be about helping people in different ways. And again, we’re really grateful for our partners that are going the extra mile helping people with other aspects of their food security and helping people in different ways, whether it’s helping people with counseling or mental health or any of the other challenges and barriers that people can find and experience in their day-to-day lives.

Aubrianna [00:14:03] How can we all work to ensure food security in our own lives and our communities?

Marjorie [00:14:08] Even prior to the pandemic, I think there was indication that we as communities, individuals, and families need to make sure that food is a priority. That we’re making purchasing food, acquiring food a priority in our budgets and in our thoughts and how we use food each and every day. And as we move through the pandemic, we’ve seen supply chain interruptions. And recently, we’ve seen disruptions because of climate change or some of the activities of the cartel in Mexico interrupting supply chain.

So, the more that we can make food a priority in our homes, in our community, locally sourcing it, being aware that maybe some things are more in season than others, those types of things, I think the more food secure all of us will be over time. Because we’re still seeing supply chain interruptions and we’re seeing the cost of certain foods really escalated. So again, just trying to make choices where maybe something isn’t quite as exotic but maybe can do a substitution in what you’re purchasing or how you’re using it in your house.

Aubrianna [00:15:31] What impact do you think the Food Bank has on the lives of the folks who use it?

Marjorie [00:15:36] Of course, we hear all the stories that people are grateful for the support they receive from the Food Bank, whether they’re a group or an individual. But again, it’s those wraparound services and how can we help people? How can we work with them and change the world? And when I say we, I mean, you know, other organizations out there. We have great relationships with groups like Bissell and Boyle Street and the Salvation Army. All these groups are doing great work and we do the food element really well and so how do we make sure we’re working together and meeting people’s needs and helping people flourish where we can?

Aubrianna [00:16:15] What does it mean to folks at the Edmonton Food Bank to be able to provide these services and what does it mean to you?

Marjorie [00:16:22] I think, for us, we’re really grateful to our volunteers and our donors, whether it’s food or money, whatever support we get. I think some of the challenges that we have as an organization is that the growth has been really hard on our team of volunteers and staff trying to grow this fast and make sure that people’s needs are being dealt with and I guess always that unmet yearning that we can make more of a difference in people’s lives and how do we do that?

Aubrianna [00:16:52] So folks looking to help out, how can they do that?

Marjorie [00:16:55] So, um, many ways. Certainly visiting our website. We’re looking for volunteers always. We have a program called Better Impact and people can log on through a portal on our website for that. Nonperishable food items can be left at any major grocery store. We do take online contributions so people can go on and make online financial contributions, which are really appreciated because when we go to buy eggs and other product, we’re buying large quantities. So, the financial support is great. So yeah, again, it’s always an option. Sometimes people choose to go shopping and buy nonperishable food items and put in the grocery store bins or, again, online where we’ll be doing events more and more again. The pandemic slowed that for a while, but people were really generous and we’re hoping that we’ll have more events and opportunities for people to donate to us.

Aubrianna [00:17:51] The support of individuals in the community is essential to the work of the Edmonton Food Bank. Volunteer Don Lore recently celebrated his 30 year anniversary at the Food Bank and I had the chance to chat with him about what’s kept him going in this work for so long.

Don, how did you start volunteering for the Food Bank?

Don Lore [00:18:09] That would be back in ’93. I had taken a payout from a company that I was working for and happened have some free time and I knew one of our neighbours was working for the Food Bank and so I asked her, uh, if she had needed a volunteer because I had some time on my hands and she said, “Boy, do I have a job for you.” So that’s how I got started. Through a neighbour and started working in the referral of the clients that were using our food would call in or would come into the Food Bank and we would interview them. So I was one of the interviewers and it was lots of fun. I enjoyed it, the people were good and I just stayed on.

Right now I work with the agencies that are able to come into the Food Bank, so agencies such as Hope Mission, Bissell Center, Operation Friendship, and a lot of the schools in Edmonton come for their snack programs. I really enjoy working with the agencies. I’m able to do things, uh, that some of the staff aren’t able to do because they’re… they’re kind of required to stay in their area. So I’m able to run around and grab things that they might not find in the agency area that I know is around. So that’s something I really enjoy is being able to help out the agencies, too, to… to get their food.

Aubrianna [00:19:36] And what’s made you stay and provide these services for so long?

Don [00:19:40] I enjoyed it. That was the number one reason I stayed. People were good to work with. So that was another reason. And I’ve always felt that if you were fortunate enough to have money and good health, that you should give, not only your time, but also money to help the less fortunate. So that was another one of the reasons why I stayed. I know I help out quite a bit. Over the 30 years, I’ve [laughs] done almost every job that there is in the warehouse. And so that’s been fun.

Uh, not all of it’s fun work. I wouldn’t give somebody a job that I hadn’t done myself. Even the ones that I don’t like, I still do ’em. I remember my uncle, I farmed one summer with him and he gave us, my-myself and my cousin, a real dirty job and I’m complaining about it. I remember coming out and complaining to him about this dirty job and he said, “Don, there isn’t a job on this farm that I haven’t done and I wouldn’t give anybody a job that I haven’t done myself.” So, basically, quit your [laughs] bellyaching. And I always remember that. That’s the way I feel about work. There isn’t a job that I wouldn’t do or give to somebody that I hadn’t done.

Aubrianna [00:21:08] What impact does the Food Bank have on the community in your opinion?

Don [00:21:12] It’s always been a very important part of the community. There are a lot of new refugees coming, uh, not only from Ukraine, but from all over the world. And new immigrants need a headstart and we provide the food that they sometimes need. I think it’s very important that we have this organization, unfortunately, because in a province this wealthy, we shouldn’t have to worry about food. But we do.

Aubrianna [00:21:41] Do you have any good memories of volunteering? What comes to mind?

Don [00:21:45] There’s lots of stories that break your heart. Those are the ones that kind of stand out to me. I’ve been very fortunate in life that I’ve lived in Edmonton all my life. Married a woman that’s been great for me and she’s always lived here in Edmonton also. So, we’ve been very fortunate. And I know if I lost my job suddenly or came down with some sickness that I couldn’t work, that I have family and friends that would support me. Not everybody’s that fortunate.

[00:22:22] Some of the stories, like I say, were just circumstances that were beyond people’s control that caused them to come to the Food Bank. I’ve taken my family there. I thought it was important that they see what goes on in Edmonton, not just the good things that they’ve had, but to see what the other people that aren’t quite as fortunate as my kids were. See how they do. One we took as a baby there, keep him around. We always try to make it fun for the kids. We would work there a few hours before supper and after their schooling they would go work a couple hours and then for dinner they could choose the place we went to, uh, for dinner. So that had some incentive on… on them coming, but they also enjoyed learning about things like that.

Aubrianna [00:23:18] You’ll recall that the Edmonton Food Bank works with over 300 organizations in the community, and one of those is Métis Child and Family Services. I also had the opportunity to speak with registered social worker, Harry Fuccaro from Métis Child and Family Services, about how they interact with the Edmonton Food Bank.

So Harry, can you tell me a little bit about how Métis Child and Family Services works together with the Edmonton Food Bank?

Harry Fuccaro [00:23:40] When we worked in the schools, we’d go into the Food Bank and we’d grab things for the school that they could cook up either for, uh, lunches, snacks, or other stuff. And some of the reasons why the kids actually come to school is just so they can have a meal from the school that is, basically, given the food from the Food Bank. And we have had a lot of successes where some of the kids aren’t coming to school for one reason or another, and then we say, “Well, you know what, if you come to school, you can have breakfast, you can have a lunch, hot lunch” and then that entices them to get ’em to school. And for them to be in school and have a full belly, they learn better.

Aubrianna [00:24:20] What have things been like at the Food Bank this year from the perspective of Métis Child and Family Services?

Harry [00:24:25] Right now, they’re having a crunch. Uh, a couple years ago, you used to be able to walk in there and do an agency row. You have basically a cart. And lately, in the last five months, six months, and there’s barely anything in there. You can walk in there and then just walk out because there’s nothing. Nothing there. It’s heartbreaking because then that turns around to our… our clients, the kids in the school, and we can’t give ’em exactly what we want.

Aubrianna [00:24:52] What happens if folks don’t get the support that they need from the Food Bank?

Harry [00:24:57] Then we look for other things, right? Then we say, “Well, can you budget a different way to the client?” Well, unfortunately there’s not a lot of, uh, other options for ’em. Then they go without food. They’d rather give it to their kids and then all of a sudden it starts playing on your mind. And then that’s a mental health issue.

Aubrianna [00:25:14] And what are the benefits when folks do access that essential, life-saving support?

Harry [00:25:19] It means that the families that we deal with in the schools and outside the schools could use the money for other things. And in this kind of economy… rent, power, phone.

Aubrianna [00:25:31] For folks who might be considering giving back, why do you think it’s important to do that right now?

Harry [00:25:36] Whatever you can do. It’s a feel-good thing, right? And I donate a lot of time and energy to different organizations in the Edmonton area and it just makes me feel good. And to be a better person in the community means everybody’s happier.

[The Well Endowed Podcast jingle plays in background]

Aubrianna [00:25:52] In 2005, the Edmonton Food Bank established an endowment fund with the Edmonton Community Foundation. You can make a donation online by going to ecfoundation.org/funds and searching “Food Bank.” The Edmonton Food Bank also accepts donations on their websites and at most grocery retailers in Edmonton.

Graeme [00:26:10] A big thanks to Aubrianna Snow for bringing us this story… and a plethora of other thank yous to Marjorie Bencz, Executive Director at Edmonton’s Food Bank, to Don Lore, longtime volunteer, and to Harry Fuccaro, foster care support worker at Métis Child and Family Services, for sharing their time with us.

Shereen [00:26:27] You can find links to Edmonton’s Food Bank’s website and more information about their endowment fund here at ECF over in our show notes. We’ll also have more information on our BIPOC granting stream there.

Graeme [00:26:37] And we’ll have links for creating a fund of your own for those who are curious. It can be such a meaningful way to support the causes that are important to you.

Shereen [00:26:45] Yeah, that’s right. You can also visit our site for more stories about ECF and Edmonton’s charitable sector, and to check out our Well Endowed Web Show.

Graeme [00:26:51] And our blog, too. We’ll also have links to our upcoming granting deadlines and funding opportunities.

Shereen [00:26:56] Any other links you wanna shout out?

Graeme [00:26:58] I think we’ve got them all.

[The Well Endowed Podcast music plays in background of outro]

Shereen [00:27:00] Well then… that brings us to the end of the show. Thanks for sharing your time with us.

Graeme [00:27:03] Yeah, thanks! If you enjoyed it, please share it with everyone you know.

Shereen [00:27:07] And if you have time, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s a great way to support the show and help new listeners find us.

Graeme [00:27:14] And come say hi to us on Facebook. You can share your thoughts and see some pictures from the show.

Shereen [00:27:18] Thanks again for tuning in. We’ve been your hosts, Shereen Zink—

Graeme [00:27:21] And Graeme Lummer.

Shereen and Graeme [00:27:22] Until next time!

Andrew Paul [00:27:25] The Well Endowed Podcast is produced by Edmonton Community Foundation—

Lisa Pruden [00:27:31] And is an affiliate member of the Alberta Podcast Network.

Andrew [00:27:33] This episode was edited by Lisa Pruden.

Lisa [00:27:35] You can visit our website at TheWellEndowedPodcast.com.

Andrew [00:27:39] Subscribe to us on iTunes—

Lisa [00:27:40] And follow us on Twitter at @theECF.

Andrew [00:27:44] Our theme music is by Octavo Productions.

Lisa [00:27:46] And as always, don’t forget to visit Edmonton Community Foundation at ecfoundation.org.

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