“The problems were many,” stated Nicole Gaul, Help Centre food bank vice-president, in an email interview. “Firstly, the volunteers were, without exception, retired senior citizens, the high-risk group for COVID-19.”
The second concern for the Help Centre board of directors and staff was how to maintain food bank service to clients while meeting the pandemic public health safety guidelines, or whether they had to consider closing the food bank operation altogether.
“There was also the concern about what increase demand there could be on the food bank,” Gaul stated, “due to the increase of (temporarily) unemployed people in our community, thanks to the pandemic.”
Gaul credited support from the community overall, the municipality, and a new core group of volunteers for keeping the food bank running, in a modified fashion, during the pandemic.
“We started by asking the volunteers who were uncomfortable with, or had a fear of, exposure to the virus to stay home,” she stated. “The greater majority did so, but new and willing younger volunteers helped out. Some of them were temporarily unemployed and wished to help.”
Food bank staff reviewed the safety guidelines from the provincial government, Food Bank Canada, and the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, to determine how to adapt the local operation so it could maintain food distribution to families in need. Given the confined space for the food bank premises, the first step was to stop public access to the food bank iself and set up a new home-delivery distribution system.
An on-site shift schedule was also set up for a maximum of six volunteers to work inside the food bank, sorting and packing delivery boxes, stocking shelves, and keeping the premises disinfected. Staff were provided with gloves and mask to wear while on duty.
The food bank suspended its public donation system for food items, to reduce the contagion risk from handling donated items. The Thrift Store was also closed as part of the public health safety protocol, which meant a loss of support revenue for the food bank. The focus became cash donations, which food bank staff used to purchase replacement stock for shelves.
Gaul noted that the food bank had to explain to its list of clients how the changes would affect its service. One volunteer would do regular phone calls from the client list to check on who need supplied from the food bank and what sort of items. The food bank also took help requests through its website.
As the weeks passed and the pandemic continued, the weekly purchasing cost for shelf stock increase by 40 to 50 per cent as more families hit by temporary unemployment turned to the food for help. During early March, grocery orders were placed on tables outside of the food bank for clients to pick up. By mid-March, the food bank switched to home delivery for all help requests, averaging between 50 and 70 deliveries each week.
During March the food bank helped 280 families. The number declined a bit to 265 in April, then 255 in May. The mid-June numbers available at press time indicated 102 families needed food bank deliveries. Gaul expects that food bank operations will start returning to normal as the pandemic restrictions continue to relax, but for now no direct contact with clients is still maintained.
Gaul credited “strong support” from the community for the past months of successful operation. She noted both the volunteers and the various stores that helped supply the food bank with its inventory pulled together to help.
“We are proud of our community,” she stated, “for keeping the Help Centre food bank going in a time of great need.”