City food banks feel the heat as winter approaches

The number of people dependent on food banks is expected to climb in the coming months

A volunteer prepares food hampers for the Surrey Food Bank. (Submitted)

The holidays are when food banks see the greatest surge of donations and struggling people needing their services. But there is another challenge facing them this holiday season — the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been challenging every day,” says Feezah Jaffer, Executive Director of the Surrey Food Bank.

Serving Surrey, Cloverdale, and North Delta, the organization provides emergency supplemental food hampers for low-income individuals. Hampers are picked up bi-weekly, containing a mixture of non-perishable items, produce, dairy, and bakery goods.

Piper Greekas, Student Services Manager at the KSA, helps oversee the KSA’s food bank program, which is funded through student tuition fees.

“In a way, you guys are actually helping out your fellow students who need the program,” says Greekas.

The KSA hampers contain two weeks worth of food. Students can customize them based on vegetarian or non-vegetarian preferences and select a campus to pick up from.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a direct impact on operations.

The Surrey Food Bank operates as a choice grocery store, but now hampers are pre-built. Their volunteer base dropped from 40 per day to 10, but now that masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizing protocols are in place, it has increased.

The KSA’s food bank also had to adapt, at first closing for two months, and then reopening again in June. Out of caution, the KSA provides online gift cards for select grocery stores in lieu of physical hampers.

The holidays are the Surrey Food Bank’s most critical time of the year because the donations they receive carry them into the following spring. With uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the lack of food drives, Jaffer is unsure what the holidays will offer for donations.

As a response, the Surrey Food Bank launched an advertising campaign via text and social media, and has started organizing drive-thru food drives.

“We’re forced to really think on our feet now and how, in this virtual world, how we can make the old model better,” says Jaffer.

“For a charity or a food bank, there is always going to be that need. Regardless if there’s a pandemic or not.”

This year, the rate of donations and clients using the food bank has varied a lot. During the onset of the pandemic, they saw a sharp increase in donations from restaurants and grocery stores, but several months in, Jaffer says that both food and financial donations “have trickled off.”

“It was quite interesting to see that kind of dynamic…it was that fear dynamic,” she says. “So people were like ‘We want to hold on to our money because what if we lose our jobs? Or what if we can’t afford anything?’”

Jaffer says there’s been an increase in younger frontline and service industry workers needing the food bank, as well as post-secondary international students inquiring about it due to a small job market and closed universities.

With holidays around the corner, food and monetary donations are increasing again at the Surrey Food Bank. The holidays bring an increase in people using the Surrey and KSA food banks, and while Greekas is unsure how COVID-19 will affect overall numbers, she’s already seen 15 requests for hampers last week alone.

Jaffer also expects an increase at the Surrey Food Bank due to the ending of emergency programs, potential restrictions, and higher case numbers.

With this in mind, they’re looking for donations of non-perishable items, including canned meat and fish, pasta and pasta sauce, canned vegetables and fruits, as well as baby formula and diapers.

“We are asking the community to keep that in mind, that if you are able to donate, just realize that there will potentially be more people this holiday season using the food banks,” says Jaffer.

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