Despite COVID-19, Canadian Northerners continue getting food to vulnerable people

Dave Speakman, left, and Ernest Zheke deliver food to the Yellowknife YWCA on Thursday. They’re being safe, but aren’t stopping their work. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Dave Speakman and Ernest Zheke load boxes full of food into the back of the white Food Rescue Yellowknife cargo van. They don’t waste any space as they get ready to make their daily deliveries to charities across the city. 

Food Rescue collects food that’s still good to eat but can’t be sold by Yellowknife’s three grocery stores. It then gives it to 15 local charities and social service agencies to deliver to their clients.

As businesses across Canada shutter their doors or reduce services amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerable people depend on services like Food Rescue to continue delivering food.

“People have to eat,” Speakman said. “The food is moving, and if it doesn’t go out to the places in town, it’ll go to the dump. So for now, we’re going to continue.”

Thursday, Speakman and Zheke had four stops to make: boxes of ketchup for the YWCA, and food hampers with meat, fresh produce and dry goods for Lynn’s Place, Hope’s Haven and Housing First.

Though they are carrying on, Speakman and others at Food Rescue are not ignoring the threat from COVID-19.

They’re reducing interactions during deliveries, sanitizing shared surfaces and following all health recommendations. The organization is also consulting with health officials in the Northwest Territories about whether their operations remain safe.

Marg Henderson is at the Food Rescue warehouse. She’s seeing fewer groceries reach the charity as people stock up at stores. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

“We’re basically taking it on a day-to-day basis,” explained Marg Henderson, who runs the warehouse where food is sorted and stored before delivery.

Henderson also asked the charities if they still want deliveries, and apart from two that felt it was unsafe, the rest said they needed Food Rescue to continue.

Henderson did say she’s noticed there isn’t as much food coming in from the grocery stores as people stock up on supplies. She pointed to their empty freezer, normally packed with food.

If it doesn’t go out to the places in town, it’ll go to the dump. So for now, we’re going to continueDave Speakman, Food Rescue Yellowknife

On a normal day, Food Rescue has about 600 kilograms of food to hand out, rising to as much as 1,800 on a busy day. This week, Henderson said she’s seen between 200 and 400 kilograms.

“We’ve  been getting very little dairy, cheese, milk, yogurt,” she said. “We always get some dairy, but it has really been cut down over the last two weeks.”

Food banks brace for shortages

Food banks face a similar situation across the country.

Food Banks Canada, the national organization representing food banks, put out a call for $150 million in donations to keep food banks stocked up during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Its latest annual report suggests Canadians make more than one million visits to food banks every month. It warns that demand will increase if people are unable to work — even with the federal government’s $82-billion aid package.

Closures and other disruptions will only complicate things further for vulnerable people, said Bree Denning, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women’s Society.

While decision-makers are concerned about people getting sick, many people are worried about putting food on the table, paying rent, or finding safety from a violent partner.

Continuing these services will be especially important in the Northwest Territories’ small communities, where food insecurity is a well-documented problem.

Ernest Zheke unloads a box of food from the Food Rescue cargo van during a delivery. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

After schools closed in the territory, staff at the Helen Kalvak Elihakvik school in Ulukhaktok donated the stocked supplies from its breakfast program to the hamlet, to be divided up among families who need it.

“We’re part of the community. Anywhere we can continue to help out, we’ll help out,” said Richard McKinnon, the school’s principal. “We made the decision right away.”

In Łutsël K’é, the First Nation is dipping into its own profits to help people get through the pandemic. Its business arm will be providing each household with a food hamper and $250.

Meanwhile in Yellowknife, the work at Food Rescue continues as long as it’s safe to do so.

They plan to load up their trucks with meat, bread, and produce and go out again Friday afternoon, with another set of volunteers delivering food for the people who need it most.

Alex Brockman, CBC News

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