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Okotoks Food Bank usage up 106% in 2022

As the cost of living increases to astronomical levels, more people are seeking the aid of food banks. While sufficient supply is a concern for the Okotoks non-profit, there is something staff say is more distressing: the mental health of their clients.
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Okotoks Food Bank Association executive director Pamela McLean on Nov. 20, 2021. (Brent Calver/Western Wheel)

With the cost of living skyrocketing and inflation at a 40-year high, more people than ever are seeking the assistance of the Okotoks Food Bank.

"I may be reaching the point of starting to worry right now," said executive director Pamela McLean.

In a comparison between January to May 2021 and the same period this year, the number of people accessing the food bank went up 106 per cent, she said. Use of the 'Help Yourself Shelves', which allow patrons to walk through a grocery-store-like set-up with coolers, freezers and shelves of dry goods, has gone up 90 per cent. 

The hamper program, which gives seven to 10 days' worth of food made up of an equal split of produce, dairy, meat and non-perishables in a hamper once a month, has seen a 30 per cent increase in demand compared to this time last year. 

There has been a 32 per cent increase in new clients seeking the services of the food bank and the number of children served has gone up 37 per cent.

McLean said the numbers are staggering.

"Right now we’re holding our own, but if this does continue and if the cost of living goes up even more, we may have to change some of our services," she said. 

This could mean changing hamper delivery from once a month to every other month or every quarter or cutting down the amount of food provided in each hamper. 

At the moment, there's no restriction on how many visits someone can pay to the food bank a week — they are able to come in all four days it is open. However, there is a possibility visits could be limited to twice a week or if the situation worsens, once a week. 

"We will never deny food to people, but we may cut down their access," said McLean. 

Though she is concerned about having enough food for those in the community that need it, McLean said she has an even greater concern. 

"I have to say I’m worrying more about the mental health of our clients," she said. "I’ve never seen anything like this." 

She explained that many clients are feeling helpless, overwhelmed and in despair. This has left staff and volunteers in a tough spot, with only an open ear to give and a help line phone number to pass on. 

"You feel so handcuffed and helpless," she said. 

McLean said last week the team learned that one of their clients had taken their own life. 

"I’m having a hard time getting past that one," she said. "He’s the first one. I don’t want anymore.

"We’re just feeling desperate ourselves and what can we offer to help? I mean, we’re a food bank, we provide emergency food. We’re not social workers." 

She said that while fallout was anticipated after two years of isolation and restrictions, she never thought it would reach this level. 

Funding at the local level is needed to address the mental health crisis emerging in the community, according to McLean, saying it's not sufficient to wait for the possibility of provincial funding in six or 12 months. 

"They need more to help revive that hope," she said. 

Both monetary and food donations are down this year and McLean said she understands, but asks that people consider the small ways they can help. 

Even buying one extra can of soup on a grocery trip and placing it in the store donation box makes a difference. 

Local partners have been instrumental in keeping the food bank stocked, according to the executive director.

Recently, a cheque for nearly $18,000 was presented to the non-profit by Walmart through its annual food bank campaign. The Okotoks Costco donates 2,000 pounds of fresh produce and other perishable twice a week. The Calgary Food Bank is also always around to lend a helping hand. 

McLean said that while she would like to see more affordable mental health resources in town, one of the best things someone can do is check on their neighbour. 

"Ask if they’re doing okay, because I know most of our clients aren’t doing okay."


Lauryn Heintz

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