Demand at the Revelstoke Food Bank has tripled during the COVID-19 crisis, and at the same time the lifeline for a growing number of residents had to cancel some of its most successful food drives due to pandemic restrictions. The result is a call for support from the community this holiday season, which will be the most challenging one in memory for many Revelstoke residents.
I met up with Revelstoke Food Bank director Patti Larson three days after the move-in to their new distribution centre at 416 Second Street West, in the old Revelstoke Cable building, which Community Connections purchased earlier this year. Prior to that, they operated the distribution centre out of the basement of the Revelstoke Legion building, and some food programs from the main Community Connections administration centre.
The new location means more space, a new social space that will allow community members to gather, and also creates office space for outreach services workers, allowing them to better interact with clients.
Larson, who has been working at then leading the food bank for just over 20 years, will be retiring in early 2021. To fill her shoes, Community Connections is splitting the role between two co-directors, both of whom currently work for the organization.
Melissa Hemphill and Erin MacLachlan will be co-directors of Community Outreach and Development, and are both based out of the new location.
They will share responsibilities, but Hemphill will focus on food security and insecurity issues, and MacLachlan will focus on housing-related issues.
“It was a natural fit,” said Larson of the staff who will carry on her work after she leaves. She feels that co-locating the administrative space with the access point for clients will help the organization in its mission. “We’re all present when we’re doing work,” she said.
The increased social connection the new centre is a lifeline for some. Larson shared a vignette from a conversation she had with a client during the pandemic: “He said, ‘You know what? You’re the only person I’ve talked to all week.'”
In addition to new demand, some of their long-serving volunteers had to take a step back from frontline services because they were among a demographic with heightened risks from COVID-19.
Line-ups wrap around the block
Between May and October of 2019, the Revelstoke Food Bank counted 4,400 visits. During the same period in 2020, demand almost tripled to 11,000 visits, and line-ups on distribution day now wrap around the block. So far in 2020, the food bank has helped 400 households, including 521 adults and 154 children.
The pandemic is the obvious driver of the spike, but MacLachlan says it has laid bare systemic issues contributing to poverty. Housing costs have increased dramatically since the opening of Revelstoke Mountain Resort, and rent takes a bigger bite out of paycheques each year.
In the coming weeks, the food bank is focusing on meeting community need during the holidays, but MacLachlan said the longer term project is developing responses to systemic issues of which food insecurity is a symptom.
“We want Revelstoke to feel supported, we want to support each other.” MacLachlan said. “We’re growing. We see a need coming out of community conversations.”
Food security and insecurity
Hemphill will be focusing on food security and insecurity issues in town. She’s been involved in a number of Revelstoke local food projects over the years, such as the Revelstoke Local Food Initiative, the Revelstoke Food Security Strategy, and the Revelstoke Food Recovery program.
“Food is a really powerful catalyst to conversation,” The new location allows for daily conversations with clients, donors, and community members.
Hemphill’s goal is to continue to, “get food security as part of the conversation in a lot of different sectors,” she said, “to build partnerships and understanding in the community.”
The pandemic has raised awareness of just how close many of us are to hard times. “I think COVID is opening our eyes to situations and variables that impact our lives,” Hemphill said, adding that the conversation needs to be about ‘de-stigmatizing poverty.”
No shortage of ways to help out
There are lots of ways to help, including donating cash, food, or items most needed during the holiday season, when Community Connections runs the Christmas Program, a seasonal program that distributes winter necessities and a bit more during the holidays. See the Christmas Program 2020 pamphlet below for details. You can also find more ways to donate directly on the Community Connections Revelstoke Society Facebook page.