Feeding Edmonton in the Time of Corona

Small Grant during COVID-19 allows better accessibility to nutritious and affordable food with fewer barriers

WECAN Food Basket Society started in 1993 to provide a measure of food security to Edmonton and area individuals and families through low-cost ($5) membership fees, and meat, vegetables and fruit selections below supermarket costs.

Membership could be for an individual or a family.

Through bulk purchasing — for affordability— and community depot distribution — for accessibility— about 450 members currently purchase through this service monthly.

When COVID-19 appeared and safety protocols needed to be quickly implemented, this almost entirely volunteer-run nonprofit was thrown off.

“Our distribution centres are mostly daycares, community centres, service agencies and community leagues. As the pandemic hit, many closed or severely modified their hours of operations,” explained Joshua Topliffe, WECAN Food Basket program manager.

No one at the organization wanted to suspend service,  Topliffe said. That would leave their members in a position to have to go to a grocery store or many stores for better deals on food, rather than to the small pop-up depots where only a few people interact.

And with many of the members in at-risk categories, or having disabilities or limited mobility, they knew that the organization had to rise to the challenge.

A $7,200 Small grant came in quickly from Edmonton Community Foundation.

“We saw a huge increase in need for food programs as soon as the pandemic took hold,” Craig Stumpf-Allen, ECF’s Director of Grants and Community Engagement, says. “The last thing we wanted to see was a food service forced to close. We saw that a relatively small investment could help WECAN keep their programs going and add some home delivery.”

Hiring more paid staff and increasing hours of existing staff was urgently needed to replace volunteer hours to continue serving the community, as membership numbers and orders rose steeply. Topliffe notes that orders placed rose by 200 in just the first two months of the pandemic.

“A lot of our volunteers are in an at-risk category as well,” Topliffe explained.

WECAN Food Basket was also able to extend hours of the depots right away and to hire extra staff, making the pickups easier for clients scrambling to adjust to physical distancing and other challenges in the pandemic.

And lastly, the grant enabled a home-delivery service.

“Sometimes we have people calling to say they’ve just had surgery and essentially cannot leave their bed,” Topliffe said.

”How are they going to get something to eat if they don’t have other support systems around them? It’s heart-breaking to hear those stories when it’s a limit of your program, but it’s nice to have it as part of our program that we can offer now.”

Many depots, however, are run by long-term volunteers including Wendy, who manages and distributes the orders in the community of Inglewood in central Edmonton. She has struggled with food insecurity and has a deep understanding of the various factors that can play into not being able to access nutritious food.

“You need to walk a path to understand,” she said.

She knows that some of her members just can’t afford to get groceries through the regular retail routes once they’ve paid rent and phone bills. “I can sleep at night knowing that the members I deliver to get proper food. Delivering a chicken to someone is good. But delivering a chicken with some potatoes and carrots is even better.”