Food bank managing demand with extra help

by Isabel Mosseler

A key element in tackling COVID-19 is to assure that the most vulnerable in our society have support. People can’t and won’t isolate successfully if they are hungry or desperate, so one of the fundamental strategies to “flatten the curve” is to assure that social safety nets are in place. One of those safety nets is food banks. Carole Renaud, president of the West Nipissing Food Bank, is very optimistic about her organization’s ability to respond to increased need, as she has been receiving continued supports.

“Right now we’re okay for another two months,” she assures, “with the money we’ve been getting from donations left and right, and I haven’t even posted anything to ask for money, because we don’t need to right now. I’m just getting our e-transfer all straightened out, and then I’ll ask. The money has just been coming in.”

“It’s unbelievable. First off we got $5,000 donated by the Caisse populaire [Alliance] in Sturgeon Falls. Then the Caisse populaire in Verner matched that. That’s how we got $10,000. And I’ve been getting donations of $500 at a time. Put it this way, our fridge has been bought and paid for, and we’ve been able to replenish the food. We’re not getting low right now; right at the moment we’re good.”

However, the operations at the food bank have changed because of COVID-19. The volunteers need to be protected, so they will be packaging items in prepared bundles for the monthly distribution day. “Sarah Pitre made some masks for us, so all my volunteers are wearing masks plus gloves. I’m trying to get not as many, only the most faithful volunteers, maybe 8 or 10 instead of the usual 20. It will take a little longer to get the bags ready on Tuesday; we’ve got over 600 bags to get ready. I do all the intakes outside; I hope it’s nice and warm on Wednesday!” Carole’s hands got a bit frozen at last month’s distribution day.

The food rescue program, which sees food saved from local stores and offered to those in need, has been shut down for the moment. Renaud explains that Food Rescue days have wall-to-wall people rubbing elbows, and the volunteers don’t want to do it at the moment. She adds that she doesn’t want to lose her volunteers, and the stores have been so busy of late that there’s nothing to rescue. “It’s not worth it right now, because we get one or two boxes.”

The Food Bank day remains the third Wednesday of each month, from 10:30 to 2pm. People will be required to line up one behind the other, following the social distancing guidelines.  “I have somebody there who will be going around being the boss, telling people to spread out. It went really well last time… If it’s for one family, I just have to say to the volunteers, who remain inside, protected… Everybody gets the same – we can’t pick and choose.”

Like everyone, Renaud is anxious for things to get back to normal. “I don’t’ have to buy bread because Dan [Lelièvre from Chez Jean-Marc Bakery] at the bakery is supplying me with all my bread. I’m going to pick up 100 breads on Tuesday. His business, all the restaurants are closed, so he’s making bread but not selling it, so he’s giving it to us.”

As for the volunteers, it takes a lot of backbone to continue in these dangerous times.  “Some of them are nervous and I tell them if they feel comfortable to come, then come. But if they don’t, then don’t come, just so they don’t make the others uncomfortable. But they are still going to be there when we get back to normal business.” As for herself, Carole says she feel good. “I just go get the donations, and Chantal [LeRoy] does the emergencies. … We help out the different agencies if they have a client who needs help, we help as much as we can… Our emergencies haven’t been that bad.” For emergencies it’s curbside pickup, a box placed outside the door.

“For our grocery shopping, we get what we can. Our grocery stores, we cannot complain, they have been helping us as much as they can for the bulk buying. The only thing we won’t have is toilet paper!” laughs Renaud. “Everybody is going to get what they mainly need, except the little extras.”

Tuesday is the big prep day for the volunteers, when the food bank gets all the meat and vegetables to pack up. “I get all my orders on Tuesday, on Wednesday we set up outside, I do all the intake, and it goes fast!  I was worried last month, but it went so well! This time I feel confident. Last month I was scared… Some people don’t take it as serious as others. You can’t come in and sit down and wait. No-one is allowed inside the Food Bank.”

Carole adds that the municipality has also asked if the Food Bank needs more help. The rationale is that if the town can keep the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of the population safe, it will effectively help keep everyone else safe.  The West Nipissing Food Bank is a critical organization in that regard.

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