What could go wrong with a centralized food bank?

After a number of food banks in Thunder Bay ceased operating, the city moved to a new centralized model. Critics say it raises public-health risks — and limits access to food for the people who need it
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Jun 04, 2020
The new central food bank in Thunder Bay is run through a partnership between the Regional Food Distribution Association and the Salvation Army. (Charnel Anderson)



THUNDER BAY — The morning of May 15 was overcast in Thunder Bay, but the threat of rain didn’t stop dozens of people from lining up outside to get food hampers from the city’s new central food bank. “It was supposed to be a 10 o’clock start, and people were here at 8:30, lined up down Northern [Avenue], all the way to Simpson [Street],” says Volker Kromm, executive director of the Regional Food Distribution Association, the organization operating the new food-bank model. 

More than 1,800 people registered to get food from the new food bank — which emerged as a solution to the closure of most of Thunder Bay’s food banks — and Kromm says it has been “working really well.” However, the central model has also raised concerns among recipients, who feel that it comes with increased public-health risks — and advocates say that Thunder Bay’s food-banking system has “collapsed,” limiting access to food for the people who need it. 

Normally, the role of the RFDA — known as “the food bank for food banks” — is to receive and distribute donated food to its 50 or so member organizations in northwestern Ontario. COVID-19 has forced the closure of food banks across the province, and, when a number of food banks in Thunder Bay ceased operating (mainly out of concern for their elderly volunteers), the RFDA and its member food banks had to re-evaluate. 

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Initially, the RFDA’s members took a patchwork approach: feeding programs, such as the Shelter House’s meal service, began providing takeout meals for clients. Some food banks, such as the Family Giving Centre at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church, opted to shut down completely, while others tried operating outdoors, with “tailgate”-style distribution. Kromm says that the tailgate model was “problematic,” as it was difficult to maintain physical distancing. 

Kromm says that many RFDA members supported the idea of shutting down in favour of a centralized, city-wide food bank, though he adds that the RFDA also “encouraged” some food banks to close down, “because it’s easier to work together.” Since April 17, the central, city-wide food bank has taken place every other Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition grounds. The RFDA provides the food, and the Salvation Army coordinates volunteers and arranges the site layout, which includes two drive-thrus and two walk-up locations. 

That Friday, Erin Bottle, a mother of two, put on a facemask and a backpack and took her scooter from her home on John Street to the food bank. She doesn’t take the bus. “What if somebody has [COVID-19] on the bus, and they happen to cough?” she says. It took Bottle more than half an hour to get to the food bank, but, once she arrived, she says, it was quick and easy. Recipients don’t have to show ID, “which is nice,” says Bottle. (People are asked to register for the central food bank by calling 211 before attending.)

But Bottle and others worry about people who must take transit to the site. Thunder Bay Transit’s COVID-19 protocol includes keeping passenger loads to a maximum of 15 people. And transit users are required to board and exit from the back of the bus, where there is no accessibility ramp. 

“There was a whole line of people at the bus stop with boxes and bags,” says Bottle. “The line got bigger, and there was a couple of elders there that had those walkers. There was a lot of things for people that had to take transit. [The bus] was fully packed, both ways.” 

Because of the closure of most of Thunder Bay’s food banks, Roots to Harvest, a non-profit focused on urban agriculture, has shifted its focus to providing emergency food access and has been working with other organizations to distribute food hampers to students and seniors. Roots to Harvest’s executive director, Erin Beagle, says the collective shutdown of food banks “has a lot of repercussions for vulnerable people in our city.” 

Beagle is concerned that this central, city-wide model is not very accessible and that it forces people to take public transit or carpool at a time when public-health officials are advising against close physical contact. “It’s not very close to very many neighbourhoods, and it’s only every two weeks,” she says. “What you’re going to see is people carpooling. You’re going to see people hungry in between, because food access has been bottlenecked for vulnerable people.” She says the model effectively asks people to “put their hunger before their safety.” 

“We didn’t have a model for what food banking during a pandemic like this looked like,” says Kirstin Beardsley, chief network services officer at Food Banks Canada, a charitable organization representing food banks nationally. Beardsley says that many regions are facing a situation like the one in Thunder Bay, where the places that people normally go to get food are closed and the remaining organizations have had to adapt as a result. 

Beardsley says that food banks are trying to balance the safety of their staff and volunteers with public-health guidelines around the safe distribution of food, while also trying to meet community needs. “Food banks are responding to the need the best ways that they can with limited resources,” she says. 

Still, food-bank users and those involved in food security in Thunder Bay think the local situation needs improvement. Bottle says she would like to see more food banks spread throughout the community so that people aren’t forced to take public transit. “They need to identify where people are and accommodate them in their community locations,” she says. “They can centralize some pickups in certain areas. It would eliminate the whole bus [issue].”

Beagle would also like to see more locations open throughout the city. Employment funding, such as the Canada Summer Jobs program, could be used to hire people that feel comfortable working at food banks, she says: “People want to help. People want to volunteer. Reopening food banks and letting the RFDA distribute to the food banks again, within neighbourhoods. That system has a certainty built into it for people who have used it for so long.”  

The RFDA has decided to continue the central, city-wide food bank for the month of June. “We are not ready to open or expose our volunteers to the risks,” says Kromm. He also says they may open one or two food banks in June, as trial preparation for what he calls “the new normal, which will require training and some reorganization in the way we handle food.”

Beagle acknowledges the challenges faced by food banks in the city. She says she would like to see more collaboration between groups in the future: “It’s about looking at this as a whole system. This is new for everybody. We’re all making it up. So we need to be open to changing that … Hopefully there’s not, but if there is a second wave [of COVID-19], let’s get it right — or more right — the next time.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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