Demand up at Mustard Seed's food bank during pandemic

More families, more seniors and more people in general are going more often to the Mustard Seed Street Church’s food bank since the pandemic was declared in March.

The need has grown in the community as incomes have shrunk or dried up.

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Demand at the Food Bank has increased around 32 per cent since March, said Duncan Chalmers, community engagement and grants co-ordinator.

“And our food rescue programming has increased around 66 per cent,” he said. Every day, about 8,000 pounds of fresh, perishable food is collected and redistributed through more than 65 partner organizations within the Food Share Network.

“As COVID restrictions continue and government supports such as the CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit] begin to expire, we expect to see a continued or even elevated degree of need as we move into the fall,” Chalmers said.

Pre-COVID, the food bank helped about 6,000 individuals per month, with the larger network assisting 40,000 people each month, he said.

More families, especially single-parent families, are turning to the food bank, he said.

Seniors or those concerned about seniors they know are also contacting the agency in higher numbers, he said.

Although food stocks are stable right now, “as emergency funding continues to diminish we envision an increased need for donations as we move into the fall and the unknown season of what’s next” regarding COVID, he said.

As with all organizations, the pandemic has altered the way the food bank operates.

Instead of people showing up at the 625 Queens Ave. location to view available dry goods and perishables and choose products in a market setting, they now collect pre-packaged hampers, passed over by staff in the parking lot.

People can also pick up fresh produce at that location as well.

Hampers with non-perishable food are packed in the organization’s 13,500-square-foot Esquimalt warehouse.

The number of employed staff members has dropped to about 20 from 30, as some services are not being offered at this time, such as programming in the building, Chalmers said.

Numbers at the food bank have gone down as well. Prior to the pandemic, about 50 volunteers helped out daily, out of a pool of more than 350, Chalmers said.

Now a smaller team of about 15 to 20 people comes in “pretty much every day,” he said. “Good to keep amount of people coming in and out of the Mustard Seed to a minimum and keep our work bubble small.”

The agency accepts both food and financial donations. Financial donations are preferred, as it can stretch each dollar through purchasing agreements with wholesalers, he said.

Among the organizations benefitting from the Food Share Network is Living Edge, which also receives help from other community-oriented agencies.

It partners with local churches to offer free fresh groceries, breads and other items at weekly markets throughout the community. Churches rely on hundreds of volunteers put on the markets.

People are not required to show identification, said Deborah Price, Living Edge administrative assistant.

Markets are held in locations such as Esquimalt, Central Saanich, downtown, Quadra Street. These days everyone is following health and safety protocols, Price said.

The markets do more than provide essentials — they foster friendships as well as a sense of community, she said.

“It is really doing more than just feeding people.” she said. “It is connecting people and giving people hope and know that they are not in this alone.”

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