Thinking Outside the Hamper

Edmonton’s Food Bank has a radical appetite for change

Despite an initial influx of high demand — and having to pivot with plexiglass barriers, masking and social distancing — things were manageable at Edmonton’s Food Bank for most of the first year of the pandemic. It was the calm before the storm.

In the early morning of Friday, October 16, 2020, two masked men stole catalytic converters off of three food bank vehicles, rendering them inoperable.

Tamisan Bencz-Knight, manager of strategic relationships & partnerships at Edmonton’s Food Bank, recalls the aftermath. When the food bank posted a video of the theft, she says Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) stepped up.

“Edmonton Community Foundation was really good to us that October,” Bencz-Knight recalls.

ECF and Kingsgate Automotive paid for the replacements on the three vehicles. But even more catalytic converters were stolen in December of 2020, prompting the food bank to invest even more funds into repairs as well as security — and then came the cost-of-living crisis.

Edmonton’s Food Bank’s client numbers have doubled since June 2020. The flagship food hamper program reached heights of 35,000 people a month with children accounting for 40 per cent of that number. This doesn’t include the other 300 organizations (including 88 schools) that Edmonton’s Food Bank serves.

ECF provided a $50,000 Rapid Response Grant in July 2022, a $75,000 BIPOC grant for culturally diverse food security needs in December 2022 and an additional $50,000 investment in February 2023. In fact, Edmonton’s Food Bank has accessed more than $400,000 in funding through ECF since 2022. However, food insecurity and demand for Food Bank services keep skyrocketing. For Bencz-Knight, the solution to an ever-growing clientele lies beyond just giving out food.

“Edmonton’s Food Bank will never solve, nor have we ever said that we will solve, food insecurity,” she says. “Food insecurity will always be a symptom of poverty.” In the early 2000s, the food bank added a second part to its mission statement: to seek solutions to the causes of hunger, but, at the time, the non-profit didn’t “know what that truly meant.” That changed when the Beyond Food Program started in 2017, funded in part by ECF.

The program allows food bank staff to sit down with people and ask them what factors outside of food are causing them to come up short. Sometimes, it’s mental health issues, and the food bank is able to refer clients to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Sometimes it’s addiction or domestic violence. Other times, its occupational skills like specific training, soft skills or language skills.

Bencz-Knight recalls one Beyond Food client who was a newcomer to Canada and needed help. He was a frequent food bank user, but Bencz-Knight hasn’t heard from him since the non-profit helped him receive the additional English and fork-lift training he needed for employment.

Edmonton’s Food Bank opened its new Niso building this year, which houses The Depot – for community members needing to access a food hamper – and a new service called The Pantry, which is still in development but was identified as a possible solution to the rising need and will help clients stock up on certain essentials in-between hampers.

The new space will expand the Edmonton’s Food Bank’s ability to store and deliver food, free up more space for programs like Beyond Food, and help address some other rising needs seen in the community. But Bencz-Knight is still looking for other creative solutions, some that might be more radical.

“Right now, I think we have to try some extremes and some real change,” she says. “We have to create an appetite for failure, to try something different with the ultimate goal of truly making an impact. Our community has many challenges. We are grateful for the continued help from ECF and Edmontonians as they continue to give.”

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