Fresh Starts for Food Bank Clients

ECF grant helps the Edmonton Food Bank restart its Beyond Food program

When the Edmonton Food Bank surveyed clients five years ago, the results were worrying: About 70 per cent weren’t connected with any other organization in the community. This meant that the vast majority of people weren’t getting help overcoming barriers to long-term food security.

To remedy this, the organization partnered with other community agencies — including the Bissell Centre, Boyle Street, and the Salvation Army — to launch Beyond Food in 2018. With help from its partners, the initiative offers in-house assistance around employment (including academic upgrading, job searching, and resume writing), personal counselling, money management, and housing support.

Things were going well until the pandemic hit this spring. “The Beyond Food Program relies on one-to-one support,” said Marjorie Benz, Executive Director of the Edmonton Food Bank.  “COVID-19 has created some challenges because of physical distancing and all of the other [measures] we’ve had to introduce.”

When the pandemic was announced, Beyond Food was forced to shut down the job fair it was in the midst of hosting. All scheduled events were cancelled and its office, at Edmonton Food Bank headquarters, was closed to clients. For several months, Beyond Food Coordinator Wisam Abu Rajab and other staff members scrambled to support clients by phone, email, or video chat — when possible. “It was not so easy, as some of them don’t have computers at home,” Abu Rajab said.

In mid-June, Beyond Food resumed in-person support via socially distanced appointments to a limited number of clients. The program also received a $21,000 grant from Edmonton Community Foundation, via the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF), for infrastructure improvements needed to deliver virtual and socially distanced programming going forward.

“Without these upgrades, the class sizes or number of classes would have to be reduced,” Cassandra Lundell, ECF’s Community Grants manager said. “The purchase of new technologies allows the program to continue but with a new delivery model that meets the health and safety guidelines for all those involved.

Benz explains that the program is remodelling two workshop spaces — originally built in the 1970s — and installing audio-visual equipment and other technology needed for the program to develop and deliver virtual courses and workshops. “These funds are an investment in people and their future,” she said. “We know there will be tougher times ahead. There are going to be people unemployed for a variety of reasons and, if the jobs open up, people will need to get access to these jobs.”

At the moment, Abu Rajab is working on a series of workshops teaching clients how to become cleaners, as there’s been a shortage of janitorial workers during the pandemic. After this, he’ll develop workshops on soft skills in the workplace (such as communication and etiquette).

He notes that while coronavirus has made it tougher for Beyond Food to offer services, the demand is only increasing: “Most of the people who come to us are looking for jobs since unemployment is highly increased because of COVID-19,” he says. “Our clients couldn’t find the support they were looking for in other places.”

Learn more about ECF’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic here.