It’s been a chaotic year for the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, as the need for their services skyrocketed with pandemic-related job loss and layoffs.
Yet, in the midst of pandemic restrictions and supply chain shortages, they managed to get 26 per cent more food into the community than the year before, according to a report they released earlier this month.
At the root of their successful response was prior planning and community collaboration, according to Food Bank CEO Wendi Campbell.
“We were fortunate to be part of The Region of Waterloo Emergency Response Plan years ago, way back in 2006,” she said.
Campbell said they dusted that plan off the shelf in January 2020 when they started to hear reports from the World Health Organization about COVID-19.
“That was a trigger for me that this was something that we could be facing -- the word pandemic had been floating out in the world. And so that put us in a really great position to be able to pivot immediately once the state of emergency was declared,” she said.
That planning included food planning practices based on historical data, to predict the volume of food they would need months ahead to ensure they didn’t face a shortage.
However, Campbell also attributes much of their success to community collaboration.
“We have one of the strongest, most innovative food assistance networks in the country. And the reason we're so successful here in Waterloo Region is because we do work together.”
The sudden surge in demand for food was also because so many of their partnered programs were forced to stop during the pandemic, leaving them to fill the gaps so those services weren’t lost.
For instance, she said St. John’s Kitchen typically serves over 300 meals a day out of a congregate community kitchen, but when the pandemic hit they could no longer gather to provide those meals.
“So we were able to shift gears and help to provide individual meals for takeout to meet the needs of those populations who maybe didn't have access to kitchens, who weren't in a living situation that was conducive to a traditional food hamper,” she said.
And while they had an existing plan for a state of emergency that helped them through this process, that plan didn’t factor in things like stay at home orders and isolation, meaning they were continually changing the way they worked to keep providing their services.
In the process, they’ve found some more efficient ways of doing things that they will continue with long after the pandemic is over.
“We've been doing things the same way for years because we never had to do it differently. COVID forced us to look at things differently, to adapt and pivot to different community needs,” she said.
“As an example, we're packing perishable hampers right now for our programs. We've seen a significant reduction in food waste, and an increased volume of fresh food that has gone out the door because we've provided that service differently.”
These changes required a lot more time and effort to execute, and over the past year, they managed with just 213 volunteers in place of the nearly 2,000 they normally have.
“Because we would also have volunteers who were out in the community, who would be doing food drives for us and special events, and all of those things were cancelled too. So that 213 was sort of the core group here in the facility doing sort of operational work of sorting and packing and gleaning and loading trucks, driving trucks, delivering food, supporting our programs on site,” she said.
Campbell says there are a lot of unknowns going forward regarding the lasting economic impact of the pandemic and whether or not the need for their services will continue to increase.
As such, they’ve been meeting with staff from food banks across the country to try to determine what they should expect moving forward.
“We don't know the answers, but we do have history, we have history of recessions, we have history of communities where there's been significant job loss, and that's helping us to predict that we're not going back to normal, we think that there's going to be more economic fallout, even as we feel like things are getting back to normal. And we want to be prepared for that.”
They are expecting an increase in requests for food hamper and meal program services, and are preparing by doing some food planning with regional partners and programs to ensure they can meet that demand over the next year and a half.
Although meeting the demand has been and continues to be difficult, requiring more work and long hours, Campbell says that knowing they were providing an essential service to community members is what drove them to continue.
On the most challenging days, they would share the feedback they’d received from community members, thanking them for how healthy the food was or how grateful they were to have access to food during such a difficult time.
“So we shared a lot of stories, and shared the gratitude of the community to really make sure everybody knew that as hard as this work was, we were making a difference,” she said.