Volunteers at Anawim Place scurry to get ready for the morning rush of people seeking food.


Volunteers at Anawim Place scurry to get ready for the morning rush of people seeking food.

December 7, 2015

Anawim Place is not scheduled to open for another 30 minutes, but early on a chilly fall morning, the lineup in front already stretches past the entrance, slinking along the building.

The volunteers in the back quickly huddle together to say Grace and a prayer for the men, women and children they will serve, before opening the doors to let them in.

"You have to bear with us," said Sister Estela Andaya, director of the food depot operated by the Sisters of Providence and many lay volunteers. "It's really like a stampede."

The demand at the inner-city charity is not an unusual sight these days, as meal providers across Alberta grapple with a 23 per cent increase in food bank usage this year.

According to HungerCount 2015, the national study of food bank use in Canada, Alberta saw the highest jump for food bank usage in the country.

Bob McKeon, former coordinator for the Edmonton Archdiocese's office for social justice, said it is interesting that Alberta's numbers went up so much, while the national numbers showed relatively little change.

"People have lost their jobs and they're trying to hold on. One thing they can do is get some help from a food bank," said McKeon. "So that's sort of the human face of what we read in the business sections of oil companies laying people off; there's a very human face of people showing up in our communities trying to get food for their families."

Across Alberta, 75 per cent of food banks reported an increase in demand for services in 2015. Significant increases were seen in Calgary, Edmonton, Parkland County, Samson First Nation, Wood Buffalo, Red Deer, Athabasca, Olds and Medicine Hat.

Sheri Ratsoy, executive director of the Parkland Food Bank, which provides food assistance to residents of Spruce Grove, Stony Plain and Parkland County, said the charity has seen a 35 per cent increase in the amount of people fed this year over 2014, averaging 250 families fed on a weekly basis.

"We were already seeing an increase in client usage due to the high cost of living in the area, but the decline in the economy is responsible for most of the increase," said Ratsoy.

McKeon agrees that the downturn in the economy is not the only thing driving up food bank usage.

Children account for about 40 per cent of those being helped by food banks in Alberta; a number he said is "way too high. To feed their kids, people are going to food banks. We need to really look at better solutions."

John Gee, community development facilitator for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, said initiatives such as Mayor Don Iveson's End Poverty Edmonton task force, are looking at the root causes of poverty, including high housing costs and insufficient social allowance rates.

The boom and bust cycle is especially harmful for people who are just struggling to get by, said Gee.

"When the economy is booming, often people at the bottom are in even worse shape because the price of everything gets driven up, especially housing."

Tamisan Bencz-Knight, spokesperson for the Edmonton Food Bank, said the organization started seeing its client numbers increase in September 2014.


"We didn't know why, but all of a sudden the numbers started going up and we were like, 'OK, this isn't normal.' Then of course November and December is when they started talking about layoffs in the oil industry. We actually felt that barometer in the economy before announcements were being made," she said.

In one year, numbers for the Edmonton Food Bank have gone up 21.5 per cent, she said. In October, the agency provided 17,722 people a food hamper through its hamper program and served about half a million meals and snacks.

"Those are huge numbers for us and it's been a struggle," she said. "The food is being donated but the food is going out faster than it's coming in."

The primary warehouse has not run out of food but agencies have.


For the first time in 30 years, the west end St. John the Evangelist Parish food depot ran out of food last month. Volunteers had to direct clients from the neighbourhood to the main food bank.

In addition to the main food bank doubling its food shipments, the parish has coped through the generosity of parishioners, said volunteer Vince Klemen.

"When we have a need or when we put out an appeal for Christmas hampers, the response is always tremendously positive," he said.

Anawim Place distribution coordinator Donna Farrell said she has also seen more donors support the agency directly as awareness has grown of the need.

"Last Friday, we were just down to bones but we have never had to send someone away with nothing," said Farrell. "It's providence."


Anawim Place, which does not have the resources to advertise, also reaps the benefits of increased donations to the main food bank.

Food bank programs and services are not government funded and rely on donations from individuals, community groups and businesses.

Bencz-Knight said people have been especially generous this year, with records broken at the Tackle Hunger and Heritage Festival food drives last summer, and at the agency's city-wide drive in September.

"But all that food is gone. It's because of the volume we're trying to help right now," she said. "We're doing our best, but the shelves are pretty lean."

The spike in food bank usage will likely continue through 2016, she added.

To donate, the Edmonton Food Bank can be reached at 780-425-2133. Contributions can also be made online at www.edmontonsfoodbank.com.