Fort St. John food bank braces for COVID-19 fallout

Demand is rising but donations are falling as the Salvation Army food bank braces for the local fallout from COVID-19.

Executive Director Cameron Eggie says he has fielded calls this week from employers warning the agency of coming layoffs, and appointments are being made for first-time users that include mothers and their children.

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Indeed the situation is changing hourly for the Salvation Army, which has made significant changes at the food bank and its emergency shelter to cope with the global crisis.

"This is a new harsh reality for our community. If there are going to be employers laying off people, it's going to put a strain on services," Eggie said March 18. "With donations down, we'll have to navigate that daily."

Key to the food bank's operations are its perishable food program in partnership with local grocers. The amount of food being picked up has fluctuated but still plummeted week-over-week, down at from nearly 250 pounds to 61 pounds Wednesday from No Frills, and down from more than 300 pounds to just 24 pounds from Save-On Foods.

"We noticed today we got a quarter of the amount of bread we'd get from store pickups because people who are mass buying are leaving little to come to food banks," Eggie said.

Pre-made food bags are being made and distributed based on family size, and community drop-ins have been cancelled. Fifty people arrived the first hour the food bank was open Monday morning, and the food bank has now instituted building limits of no more than five people at time. The agency is looking at home delivery for its most vulnerable users and families with children.

Local butcher Stan Troyer has started an online crowdfunding campaign to help buy cattle and provide up to $5,000 worth of hamburger and roast meat to the food bank, Eggie said.

While the agency has support from its provincial and national offices, local monetary donations are still going to be key to managing services specific to Fort St. John, Eggie said.

The agency's moneymaker, its thrift store, has closed for at least two weeks. Donations of items will still be accepted at the back door, and staff will be be reassigned to help at the food bank or shelter.

If food donations continue to decline, the agency will need to order bulk food shipments to keep up with demand. A janitorial supply order has been delayed, and the Eggie said his staff has struggled locally to find sanitizing wipes and masks to provide to guests.

"What impacts the household impacts an emerge shelter trying to provide services to vulnerable people who don't have enough money to stock up on anything, don't have the resources or a vehicle to get around town to find what they need," Eggie said.

"Folks need a place to sleep and they need food in their belly. That can't stop when the world stops."

At the shelter, registered guests will not be impacted, but all communal spaces have been closed.

Isolation rooms have been designated for anyone showing sickness symptoms, COVID-19 or otherwise. All volunteer activities have been suspended, and the year-round, twice-daily sanitization of the facility continues.

"It's going to be all hands on deck. I'll probably do some shelter shifts, get back to my roots a little bit, which will be just fine, Eggie said.

"It's interesting times, very interesting times."

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca. 

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