Times have been tough in Alberta, and that’s been obvious to volunteers at the Mayerthorpe Food Bank.
There are just over 500 homes in the town but in many, it’s a struggle to put food on the table.
“We serve about an average of 14 families a week,” said Tammy-Lee Gilroy, the food bank’s administrator.
“A good portion of those are six- to seven-people hampers. We do have a number of single-person hampers, but we are going into the bigger families again.”
The food bank recently participated in Farm Credit Canada’s Drive Away Hunger campaign, an annual event focused on rural food banks. Since it began in 2004, the initiative has collected enough food for more than 50 million meals.
In Mayerthorpe, the need keeps growing.
“With the economy the way it has been, three years ago, our numbers went from five hampers a week to 12 hampers a week,” said Gilroy, who has volunteered at the food bank for nine years. “Our food and cash donations stayed the same. The second year, we went up to 14 or 16 hampers a week, and the food and cash donations didn’t fluctuate.”
This year, cash donations are down by about $5,000 and food donations have also dropped.
“It’s not just the oilpatch for us,” she said. “It’s the farming community as well. We’ve had two really bad farming years. It’s tough for people to give money that they don’t have. They’re not even making things meet in their own world.”
The food bank, located in the Mayerthorpe Baptist Church and open for two hours every Thursday evening, is run entirely on volunteer power. Around 17 people are involved, and they do everything from bagging and sorting donations behind the scenes to giving out hampers and serving clients. There are also groups of elementary school children and teenagers who help out.
Rural food banks have additional challenges that their urban cousins may not face, said Gilroy.
For example, food banks in cities can have access to multiple grocery stores able to give donations, but Mayerthorpe has only one.
“We have a great working relationship with our grocery store and things are improving every year in regards to donations from it,” she said.
The Mayerthorpe Food Bank also relies on donations from community groups, individuals, local businesses and farmers who donate meat and vegetables.
Having a Drive Away Hunger event in their community was a godsend, with about 1,200 pounds of food dropped off at the Elmer Elson Elementary School, which regularly supplies bread and cinnamon buns for the food bank’s breakfast program.
“We have always had overwhelming help from the school,” said Gilroy.
Food donations typically take the food bank up until April, when it starts using cash donations to purchase items.
Rural food banks face another challenge — in a small community, those who need help fear everyone will know their situation.
That’s not necessarily true in Mayerthorpe, which has about 1,300 residents, but Gilroy and her fellow volunteers recognize it’s a major concern.
“If I happen to see someone in the community that has used the food bank and they know I work there, I just say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ — I don’t ignore them,” she said. “Usually if I see someone in the community that has used the food bank, they’re very polite and happy to see me. It’s very confidential, so nobody would know other than us and the other people who might be in the building at the same time.”
Still, some feel a great deal of shame.
“We do our best to put them at ease. Some people feel bad for using it. Some people feel like failures, and they don’t get over it.”
With the growing need, Mayerthorpe’s food bank has become more visible in recent years.
It is active on Facebook, works with a local hockey team and other organizations that collect donations in lieu of admission. The youth group at the Baptist Church collects donations as does the elementary school at its Christmas concert, high school classes have food-drive competitions, and there’s a 50/50 raffle at the annual Christmas market.
“Christmas is huge. We see a lot of influx of donations around Easter and Thanksgiving and Halloween,” said Gilroy.
And there’s a need for all of those donations.
Some go to regular users, and some to people who are “down on their luck” and may only come once or twice, she said.
“We’ve had times where we have helped those people, and they have come back to volunteer later. You’re just so happy to help people, whether or not they give back.”
Farm Credit Canada collects donations online at fcc-fac.ca (click on the In Your Community pull-down menu). You can also donate to Food Banks Canada at foodbankscanada.ca. That website has a listing of food banks across the country (click on the Find A Food Bank link in the upper right-hand corner of the home page). It has contact numbers for 90 food banks in Alberta.