As the 2021 Western Wheel Cares charity campaign kicks off, one recipient organization is already well into a busy season.
The Okotoks Food Bank has been seeing usage ramp up well ahead of the usual curve, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing a clear part.
“As you can imagine, it’s been fairly topsy-turvy ever since the pandemic began,” said executive director Pamela McLean.
“Our usage has been up, down, and all around in the last 20 months. Generally we start to see an increase in need and usage around the beginning of September, but that just occurred earlier for us than our usual pattern.”
The uptick started mid-August this year.
“It seemed to be more than because of kids going back to school, there was something else going on,” McLean said.
“It hasn’t slowed down for us since about that second week of August.”
The food bank provides two main distribution programs. The first being food hampers assembled by volunteers containing approximately ten days of food for families living within the food bank’s designated coverage area. The other is the “Help Yourself Shelves”, open to people from outside of that area.
“It’s basically a little grocery store where we’ve got a cooler, a freezer, and all kinds of non-perishables,” McLean explained, adding usage has exploded. “And that has just taken off. We record the numbers at the end of each day and every day we look at it and go ‘Wow, that’s even higher than last week.’
“Normally we would see 15 to 20 people a day during the times we’re open. We’re consistently over 30 a day.”
Much of that traffic increase is from areas where smaller foodbanks don’t have such a program, McLean said, such as Cayley, Blackie, Nanton, and High River.
The food bank also met a greater need during Thanksgiving.
“Last year we had given out 50, and so this year we guestimated 60, but we hit 80,” said McLean, adding they expect a similar uptick for usage at Christmas, the registrations for which opened on Nov. 3.
“We’ve got eight already. Normally the requests kind of trickle in about the end of November and then boom, they all come at the first week of December. We started getting phone calls in October asking when Christmas hamper registration was going to open.”
With the approximately $16,000 received from the last two years’ Wheel Cares campaigns, as well as the annual Christmas Concert, McLean said the food bank was able to fund a new delivery truck, which had a ripple effect benefiting the entire region’s smaller food banks as well.
“With those savings, we purchased a truck in April of this year. It’s a beautiful 16 foot delivery truck,” McLean said. “It has really increased the amount of food that we’re able to bring into the food bank, as well as increasing the amount of food we’re able to push out to the smaller food banks.”
Since being designated as a hub by Food Banks Alberta in April 2020, McLean said the added transport capability enabled it to transport tens of thousands of pounds to keep shelves stocked at food banks across the Foothills, where previously smaller food banks would have to come pick up smaller loads in Okotoks.
“We probably gave out about 1,000 pounds of food (per month), but now that we can deliver the food to them, we’re pushing out about 15,000 pounds a month to the smaller food banks in the rural areas,” McLean said. “It’s been tremendous, so tremendous.”
This year the food bank hopes to put funds toward in-house improvements.
Now occupying a new space in the Stockton industrial park, McLean said the food bank is beginning to outgrow their old picker lift, which is meant for smaller loads in smaller spaces.
“We call her Bessie. I think she’s close to 20 years old, and she works her guts out for us for sure,” Mclean said.
“We want to make some upgrades to our warehouse, and we want to get an actual forklift.”
The food bank has accordingly set their sights on a larger machine, likely a battery-powered sit-down Toyota forklift.
“Our warehouse co-ordinator could really use a proper forklift, something that he can drive outside and as trucks come in and we’re unloading. Our current piece of equipment is not stable in an outside environment,” McLean said.
Also continued from 2020 is the sale of the Okotoks Food Bank’s own cookbook, Food - A Simple Connection, featuring recipes from the community. The professionally produced cookbook was triple-tested and prepared by a team of professional chefs, photographers, food stylists, and other volunteers.
More information about the cookbook can be found at okotoksfbcookbook.ca
The continued generosity has been vital to the food bank’s ability to continue serving the region.
“We live in quite a loving, caring community. It has done an incredible job taking care of us pre-pandemic but especially during the pandemic,” McLean said.
The 2021 Western Wheel Cares campaign will benefit seven organizations: Foothills Advocacy in Motion Society, Foothills Country Hospice, Inclusion Foothills, Okotoks Food Bank, Pound Rescue, Rowan House Society and Sheep River Health Trust.
The 2020 campaign exceeded expectations with a record $71,379.65 raised, bringing the total raised over the nine years to $414,282.
This year’s Wheel Cares campaign runs Nov. 1 to Dec. 31.
To donate to Western Wheel Cares: mail cheques to Box 150, Okotoks Ab. T1S 2A2 or click here for a Paypal donation link.
As well, you can drop by to the Wheel office at 9 McRae St., from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch.)