Fighting Food Insecurity Through Community Connection

Through partnerships, WECAN Food Basket Society works to help alleviate food insecurity

Every month, hundreds of Edmonton families turn to WECAN Food Basket Society for help. Since 1993, WECAN has been helping people with a limited or fixed income make the most of their grocery budgets.

“WECAN was founded to combat what was called, ‘Empty Fridge Syndrome’,” explains Joshua Topliffe, program manager at WECAN.

“Basically the phenomenon was noticed that people didn’t have enough food to get them through the month, with the last two weeks of the month in particular [being] the most difficult before payday.”

In response, WECAN was developed to help Edmontonians access items like fresh produce and frozen meat items through every week of the year.

Members of the society prepay for groceries at the beginning of each month — when they already have some food in the fridge, and money in the bank. As money gets tighter towards the end of the month, they’re then able to pick up prepaid items from WECAN. The organization buys fresh food in bulk, and then sells it to members for 15 to 30 per cent less than what they’d pay if buying the same items from the grocery store.

“When folks are living paycheque to paycheque, or are underemployed or unemployed, that amount of money is quite significant,” says Topliffe.

WECAN is just one piece of the puzzle working to solve food security issues in Edmonton. Its services are designed to add to the work of other community groups, such as community leagues, food banks and family resource centres.

“We have a role in the food security ecosystem and we really view it in a collaborative way,” says Topliffe. “Hopefully by using different sources, different partners, we can alleviate food insecurity, together.”

Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) is one of the partners that has helped WECAN give families and individuals access to nutritious food. Since 2013, ECF has supported WECAN’s efforts, first with a three-year grant as part of a Vital Signs initiative. In more recent years, WECAN also received funding through ECF’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, as well as a grant to develop and revamp its online ordering capacity.

In that time, Topliffe says the need for food support in the Edmonton area has only grown.

“There has been more demand, and although it’s not in the same way that free food services have experienced an increase in demand, it has definitely gone up,” he says. Over the past decade, WECAN has seen an increase of about 200 orders per month.

Through the years, to meet growing demand, WECAN has expanded its geographic reach. Today, there are 22 WECAN depots in the Edmonton area, including some of its busiest locations in neighbouring communities like Barrhead, Tofield and Westlock.

The way that WECAN operates has also evolved. When it first began serving Edmontonians, WECAN managed all of the volunteer teams needed to run each pickup depot. But as demand grew, that model became unsustainable. So in the spirit of WECAN’s commitment to collaboration, it’s gradually shifted to a partnership model, working with other community groups who manage the volunteers for each location.

In a way, this shift has also established WECAN as a hub for connection.

“Some of our members, and even some of our volunteers literally don’t interact with anyone in person outside of our depot pickup days. So it’s also a source of community for a lot of people,” says Topliffe.

Looking forward, Topliffe sees more growth and evolution in WECAN’s future. He knows its continued success is only possible if it continues to work alongside other organizations who are committed to helping Edmontonians in need.

“We’re going to continue the partnership model that we’ve engaged in. We want to be more involved in the food security movement, and to try and collaborate more to alleviate food insecurity,” he says.

”WECAN as an organization wouldn’t exist without collaboration, whether it’s our volunteers or our partner organizations. They really are the lifeblood of the organization, and what we’re able to do.”

This story comes from the Winter 2023 edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full magazine.