The Miracle of Edmonton’s Food Bank

A guest story from our friends at the Edmonton Food Bank

At 92, Mike Fagan is still a firm believer in miracles. He is one of the last surviving founders of Canada’s first Food Bank, located right here in Edmonton.

And he says it was no less than a miracle that created the organization that today serves more than 27,000 hungry people a month.

“I believe this is the work of the spirit in my life,” says Fagan, his speech still thick with the accent of his Irish homeland. “It’s God providing for his people through his people. It’s a miracle unto itself.”

Fagan, came to Canada as a young man to work in the mines, landing a job in northern Ontario. But he quickly answered a more spiritual call. He joined Madonna House, a small lay order of men, women and priests living a semi-monastic lifestyle devoted to serving others in need. In 1976 he was transferred to the Marian Centre in Edmonton’s inner-city. Around that time that he heard about a group in Arizona that had come up with a new idea to help feed the hungry. Rather than working on their own, churches and agencies had banded together to create a “food bank.” It would centralize the collection and storage of surplus food that would otherwise go to waste, and distribute it city-wide. He wondered if they could do the same thing in Edmonton.

“That sense of caring and gathering up was very much strong within me by virtue of the experiences living here at the Marian Centre and meeting the poor that were on the streets.”

Fagan began discussing the idea with others including Bob McKeon, who had been appointed by the Catholic Archdiocese to work on social justice issues facing the poor. He had an office in the basement of Marian Centre. One day Fagan and McKeon were talking about where to find someone with the business and food industry experience they would need to start such a project.

“The doorbell rung,” Fagan recalls four decades later. “I go open up the door. And there before my very eyes was a guy by the name of Francis Lopez, a local businessman in the food business.”

Lopez told him. “I was sent by a priest to help feed the needy.”

Francis Lopez remembers things a little differently. The knock on the door, was actually a phone call, he says. That was followed by a meeting several weeks later at Marian Centre with and handful of people from local churches and agencies. But at 79, Lopez agrees the chance encounter that started Edmonton’s Food Bank was very significant.

“You know, something very big happened at the meeting we had. Very big. Unique,” Lopez says. “Those who have an experience like mine at the time knew this was really exceptional.”

Lopez got his food industry skills through a circuitous route. Born in France and trained as a welder, he was lured to Canada as a “place that had more lakes than people.” After working a in Northern Quebec, he and his wife joined the migration of skilled tradesmen heading west, settling in Edmonton in the mid 1960s.

Lopez found work as a welder in Fort McMurray but he was concerned about the dangers of the job and decided to buy a small business to give his family some added security.

“I open the Edmonton Journal, and there was one business for sale. It’s a delicatessen in Capilano (Mall.) I didn’t know what a delicatessen was.”

The store sold prepared meats and other specialty food items. Lopez bought the business and began learning about buying and selling food. He also started noticing that some of his customers could not afford the food they needed.

“I realized some people were looking at the really good product, certain product. And oh, the eyes you know, they want to buy it. (But they said) oh no, I got enough of that at home, give me a couple slices of Bologna.”

Lopez thought he could help by purchasing food in bulk, which came with a lower price, and then passing the saving on to those in need. He even convinced the mall manager to let him use his store after hours to distribute the food. Now he was in search of those who worked with the poor so he could put his plan in motion.

“I knock on doors, I knock on doors. Finally, I went to see the priest at my parish at St. Andrew (Catholic Church,) The priest answered, ” Go see Mike Fagan at the Marian Centre. He deals with the poor.”

Bob McKeon, whose Social Justice Commission office was the site of that fateful meeting that started the Food Bank, tells a little less dramatic story. He says the Food Bank was more an evolution of work that had been going on in the inner city for years.

“I mean Marian Centre was doing a food outreach for the previous 20 years, Hope Mission back to the 30s. Bissell Centre is over 100 years old.”

But he says there was a feeling among agencies that there was a better way.

“You’d run into situations where different organizations would be pursuing the same food store for surplus food. So that doesn’t make sense. I think there was a sense that we could do what we were doing – feeding those who were hungry in the inner city – better if we cooperated.”

McKeon is also quick to point out that there were more than a dozen people and organizations involved in getting the Food Bank started in 1981.

“We’re the ones you’ve been able to find 40 years later. You know some key people have died, others have moved on to other things.” One of those key members was Janet Hughes, a prominent volunteer in the city. She served as the founding chairperson and remained on the board for 25 years. She died in early 2019. ”

Today at 75, McKeon’s eyes are on the future, rather than the past.

“Why does a city like Edmonton need such a large incredible organization like the Edmonton Food Bank? What is it about our society that we’re unable to have people support themselves that way? That poverty is such a continuing issue?”

For his part Mike Fagan is thankful the organization is still thriving. He says it’s part of the miracle that began four decades ago.

“The Food Bank has been blessed. The people responded and I thank God to see what happened.

People came out of the woodwork to help,” he says. “And that, I think, is a work of love.”

Learn more about the start of the Edmonton Food Bank in this video: