Food banks step up to meet needs of new, older users

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Food banks reflect the communities they serve, according to Laura Lansink, executive director of Food Banks B.C.

So, if something goes wrong, like the shutdown of a main industry, there are dramatic results, like the 45 percent increase in demand of food bank services a northern town experienced because those who had been donors were now recipients.

"And the worst thing was, there was no food coming in because nobody had any money," Lansink told the Georgia Straight when reached by phone at her Surrey office.

The reverse can also happen, where a town experiences a boom and the food bank receives an abundance of donations. The Lower Mainland is no different in reflecting its people and issues.

“In some communities we’ve got an aging population,” Lansink said. “About eight percent of the people [7,500 each month] who are using the food bank are people living on a pension.”

Food bank managers, she noted, especially those in the Lower Mainland, are telling her that those numbers are rising. “Their population’s getting older and more and more are discovering that they need to use a food bank.”

Specialized programs are being developed, like one at the Surrey Food Bank, where 16.4 percent of their seniors live in a low-income bracket. The program helps deal with the age-related nutritional needs of the demographic as well as their mobility issues by providing a specific day for them to collect their food without the pressures often associated with crowds, and a group of peer volunteers to ease the stress of the experience.

For any age, it’s hard to take that first step to receiving aid from a food bank, said Lansink, who is not concerned about abuse of the system. “People don’t want to come. If they had money, don't you think they’d rather go to the store and choose what they want, when they want?”

Volunteers are often past recipients wanting to give back to a service that was there when they needed it, so those approaching the food bank for the first time will find empathy, she said. “They understand. Often times they were in that line up, maybe a couple years previous, and they know it’s hard.”

Sometimes it’s a case of not knowing the food bank is there, said Jay Murray, manager of the Sources White Rock-South Surrey Food Bank. “I think it’s just people don’t expect there to be a need.”

In 2012, the food bank served approximately 1,700 people. Presently, she said, they average 560 to 600 users a week.

There are a lot of working poor, according to Murray. “They’re trying not to come but, you know, at the end of the month, if they can’t make their rent, food seems to be the last thing they can purchase.”

There are several opportunities for the public to donate. Each community food bank has their specific needs listed on their website but overall the request is for healthy choices, said Murray. “People living in poverty tend not to eat the healthiest food. So, things like whole wheat pasta, brown rice, canned protein like salmon or tuna, and peanut butter are needed.”

Cash donations are preferred, however, because the food banks can make the dollar stretch. “We get special deals from a lot of our suppliers, and we can buy in bulk, and we’re able to get more that way.”

Overall, in B.C., food bank use since 2008 has been up by 20 percent, said Lansink. “This past year, the average food bank, 94,000 people each month are being assisted.”

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