By Carol Christian, Connect Contributor
When residents are out grocery shopping this weekend, they’re encouraged to purchase a few extra items to help fill the shelves at the Wood Buffalo Food Bank thanks to the annual Syncrude Food Drive.
Volunteers will be stationed alongside H. Wilsons Tucks at nine of Fort McMurray’s grocery stores and Walmart collecting food and monetary donations. The food bank will have its van at the Anzac Grocery Store collecting donations.
This major fund-raiser for the food bank kicked off with the Corporate Challenge on Dec. 1. This challenge lasts one day, in partnership with Country 93.3 and Rock 97.9. Syncrude starts off the challenge by announcing its corporate donation live on air at 7 a.m. which occurred after press time for Connect. From there, they challenged other organizations to donate. Both radio stations took pledges from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 pm. Everyone was welcome to call in and pledge: Corporations, companies, service groups, clubs, and individual donors.
The three-day Syncrude Food Drive then followed from Dec. 2 to 4.
“This food drive is our signature food drive. It has been going for 24 years and brings in about 25% of our annual food and operating budget,” noted Arianna Johnson, executive director of the food bank. “This food drive also allows us to engage the community in helping each other and volunteers at the truck get a sense of doing something vital for another human being.”
People are invited to donate non-perishable food items and personal hygiene products to the food drive. Monetary donations are also gratefully accepted.
“We turn ever dollar donated into $7,” she added. While gift cards are also welcome, she noted that it forces the food bank shop at retail prices, meaning the cards don’t stretch as far. While the food bank does receive discounts at some local grocers, it’s still not as financially beneficial as shopping wholesale.
“Gift cards are used for food purchasing. We do not give gift cards out as there is no way to prevent people from using them on alcohol or cigarettes,” she explained, adding this goes to the food bank’s efforts to promote healthy choices. In addition, when people are donating food items from home, it’s not necessarily a time to rehome those expired products.
“We want to remind our donors, especially at this time of year and after all we have been through, that our focus is to provide the healthiest and most nutritional hampers possible to our clients. We ask that you check for expiry dates before donating.”
There are many items the food bank needs at this time of year and to help meet that demand, wish lists will be attached to shopping bags distributed at the donation locations. This year, there are 32 different versions of that list.
Asked if usage continues to be high, Johnson wondered the same definition as many have post-evacuation: What is normal?
While re-entry was underway back into Fort McMurray and area, the food bank was a re-entry support service paid for through a grant from the Red Cross via Food Banks Alberta.
In September, the food bank returned to normal operations. Numbers in September were much lower than pre-fire; by half actually, points out Johnson. In October, while higher than September, it was still not back up to pre-fire numbers. At that point, the food bank did some research into its data and pulled a pre-fire heat map of its clients.
The answer was pretty clear, said Johnson. “Of our top five neighbourhoods where most of our clients live, our clients are simply not back in town.”
Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways are three of those five.
“Our numbers will likely increase in December and January again as well and we expect to see increases ever month as insurance runs out and the winter hits.”
Johnson noted that of the food bank users, 34% are children.
The people and companies that reside within the region have, throughout time, looked after their own, said Johnson on the generosity of the community.
“While we have experienced immense support from the rest of the province and country post wildfire – in which there is no way to express our gratitude for – it is those from within that make this community the most giving in the country and without whom we would never be able to achieve what we have and what we will.
“You know what they say: A family that eats together, stays together. And that’s what we are: A family who eats together.
And with the holiday approaching, Johnson reminds clients and potential clients the food bank will be closed Dec. 26, 27 and Jan. 2 so they are strongly advised to call early as appointments fill up quickly.
It takes more than 600 volunteers for the food drive and more are still needed to lend a helping hand. A sign up link can be found on the food bank’s website: http://www.woodbuffalofoodbank.com/