James McAra is president and CEO of the Calgary Food Bank.
Can you give me an overall picture of how much is distributed each year to people through the food bank and how many people are served?
McAra: Each year the Calgary Food Bank shares (through direct programs and referrals) over 11 million pounds of food affecting over 180,000 lives. Beyond being a referral point for over 300 agency partners and their clients who need food, we share more than 2.5 million pounds with 239 agency programs that have food needs (meals, kitchens, snacks, pre/after school care) as part of their programming. We share a further 2.3 million pounds of food with other food banks across Alberta and Canada (with donor intent). Last year, the food bank provided over 101,000 hampers (of several types), impacting more than 180,000 lives.
How have those numbers changed in the last couple of years?
McAra: Up until this year, the demand for the programs and services of the Calgary Food Bank have been the highest ever. This past year ,we’ve experienced a three to five per cent increase month over month, rekindling concern for the recovery of our city.
We’re fortunate to have an amazing community that continues to support us in these most difficult times.
How did the economic recession of 2015 and 2016 impact the food bank?
McAra: The Calgary Food Bank had just started to experience a reduction in demand following the global financial crisis when demand spiked from the oil and gas disaster. We experienced demand from people across all sectors, not just oil and gas, resulting from these changes.
Several factors also increased demand on the food bank (and our partner agencies with which we make referrals) such as Employment Insurance regional disparities and limits, delays in processing support programs through Service Alberta and Service Canada.
We continue to assist increasing numbers of lone parent families and single individuals who have expended all their savings and assets while exceeding what limited EI or other support they may have accessed.
We have also found added challenges for single individuals due to changes in tax benefits and other family focused policies and programming that benefit families but not individuals. This is important because research demonstrates that a single individual can have added living costs of up to 40 per cent for basic needs without the ability to gain revenue proportionately.
What is your greatest need today?
McAra: Other than a change in the economy, our greatest needs are proteins, vegetables, fruits and volunteers. The emergency hamper (the program most people are familiar with from the CFB) contains seven days of food, balanced with Canada’s Food Guide.
Where we don’t get donations of fresh or canned foods, we are forced to purchase to ensure the nutritional quality of our hampers. Volunteers do a great job of making sure all of our programs and services are operating effectively and efficiently but there is always room for more people to help and guide our organization.
What are some of the newer initiatives launched by the food bank in the last few years?
McAra: In the past couple of years we have focused in two areas.
Our first focus is always on the quality and availability of the food our city needs. Our programs and services must meet or exceed nutritional needs and food safety but also make a positive impact on the client. During this economically challenging period, it has been difficult to maintain our standards; you cannot compromise on food.
The other area we have focused on is making sure each of our 70,000-plus callers requesting food are connected to a great community agency that has services to address the root causes. Food is a symptom of greater crisis and without a connected approach, food alone will not help people past crisis.
We found that people are greatly unaware of agencies and programs that could help them, they are too focused on the empty fridge/belly. Our conversations help people make a solid next step in recovery and build resilience.
We have an up-to-date database of over 200 agencies and there are more than 300 programs that we use each and every conversation. We know positive impacts come from a group effort and we have the facts to prove it.