Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thinking Outside the Macaroni and Cheese Box - Fort McMurray Food Bank

It seems that every time I interview someone I realize exactly how little I know. Even more than that I learn how complicated everything is, whether it's a business or a charity or a political party. Things that seem on the surface to be simple are far more complex than I have realized - and this occurred to me again when Arianna Johnson, Executive Director of the Fort McMurray Food Bank, kindly gave me some of her time to educate me about the food bank, the complexities of operating it, and running a non-profit organization in general.

Arianna is an impressive woman to me, a bit of a force of nature. She took over direction of the FM Food Bank in April, and she faced some significant challenges. The Food Bank had been forced to move from their previous home on very short notice, and it had been a trying time. The transition was beneficial in that they are now leasing-to-own their new home, a larger building in a more accessible location. The space in this building means less food wasted. Why? Because more space allows for easier sorting of food, allowing food with imminent expiry dates to be more easily "pushed" to the front and not left sitting at the back as new food arrives (see, that right there is one thing I hadn't given much thought to - the logistics of expiry dates).

One of the other challenges was recruiting a new board of directors. With a new building and a new director the time seemed right to look at a new board. The previous board had done a wonderful job over the past 28 years (yes, that's how long the food bank has been around) but boards need new ideas, too, and with new people comes new ideas. Arianna has some very interesting ideas about forming boards, ideas that I agree with quite completely. Each organization has specific needs, and requires specific skill sets. To have "warm bodies" on a board of directors isn't enough - you need those who bring the skills needed to make your board the most effective board it can be. So, Arianna began to recruit people with those desired skill sets - financial, legal, and, for the food bank, someone who knew food (this turned out to be Chef Clarence from the Sawridge). I've served on boards, people, and school councils. Too often they are formed with people who are definitely interested but who don't have the appropriate skills. I've even been asked to serve as treasurer, when it's quite clear I write because I can't add. This sort of directed board formation makes sense to me. Once again, the inclusion of a chef made perfect sense but was an example of an aspect I hadn't considered - on a food bank board you need someone who understands food (safety, preparation, nutrition, etc).

Now, the new building has given the Food Bank much more space, but with that comes increased operating costs, too. This means that one of the things they can use is monetary donations - and not just cash specifically designated for food purchases. I understand why people would donate cash and specify it's just for food, but as Arianna pointed out it takes money to pay the bills, and to pay staff. The Food Bank operates with minimal staff, but if it was entirely volunteer based it would cease to exist (as anyone who has tried to secure volunteers in this city knows). Thus a certain number of paid staff are necessary - but they like to be paid in cash, not canned goods, and so monetary donations that are not designated are very helpful to running the operation.

And now about that food. Arianna gave me a tour of the Food Bank warehouse, and it's an impressive space. It's clean and well-organized, and it's very functional. This is where I learned a great deal though - like how much food gets thrown out every year. Why does donated food get tossed? Well, we are back to those expiry dates, people. When groups organize community food drives people often donate "from their cupboard". And if you are like me you are probably guilty of pulling out whatever cans and boxes happen to be there, and you don't check the expiry dates, either. You toss them in a bag, and put them out for pick-up. When they arrive at the Food Bank the dates are checked, it turns out that can of soup expired two years ago, and it ends up in the Food Bank dumpster (a dumpster they have to pay to empty, which means your expired donated food is actually COSTING them money). That's frustrating for the Food Bank, and it means your generousity, while well-meant, has been futile.

One of the other things I learned about is the Food Bank's mission to provide healthy food (and food that is culturally appropriate, another aspect that had escaped me). People, I know I am guilty of this : donating macaroni and cheese. Why have I donated this? Because it's sold in a case, it's inexpensive, and kids like it. Unfortunately it also has virtually no nutritional value. As Arianna said it might fill a child's belly but it's not contributing to their nutritional needs - it's fundamentally junk food and inappropriate, especially for children who have little access to truly nutritional food. People, this was a revelation to me. It's not enough to just "donate food" - we need to practice "thoughtful giving". When Arianna took over the Food Bank had an entire wall of macaroni and cheese, more than they could ever use. So, it was distributed to other community groups - and the Food Bank began to try to educate the public on what is really needed by their clients.

What is really needed? Well, the list changes weekly, and I will include this week's list at the bottom of this post. There are some standard items, though, that people often don't consider, things like cleaning supplies, personal hygiene items, baby supplies, and feminine hygiene products. The Food Bank has become quite proactive, tweeting weekly needs on Twitter and posting them on Facebook. They also have a great website, and then there is the easiest way to see what they need : call them. They will happily tell you what they need, and this is why they also love to know about food drives BEFORE they happen. They often don't know about these wonderful efforts until after the fact, and while they genuinely appreciate the help they also know it can be much more effective if they have the chance to provide the organizers with a "needed" list.

There are ongoing challenges with the Food Bank. Currently they are unable to distribute dairy products as they lack the storage. They have one small fridge, not adequate for their needs if they are to distribute dairy goods. They are using freezers designed for home use instead of commercial ones (home freezers work but are much more prone to short life spans due to the volume of foods they see at the Food Bank).  They use monetary donations to purchase meat, but with their storage issues cannot store much at any one time. They are only rarely able to distribute fresh produce (although Dunvegan Gardens often kindly donates excess produce which they happily include in hampers when possible). They issue coupons for eggs. They need a weigh scale that can weigh entire pallets instead of the tiny scale they currently use.They have hundreds of re-usable grocery bags, but they need to be washed. They have a washer and dryer, but need a plumber to come in to install the required plumbing. They dream of walk-in refrigerators and freezers, of being able to do so much more than they currently are able to do. They dream big, and I share that dream, too.

One of the other things I learned is that the Food Bank receives no government funding, and has only just begun to apply for grants due to their increased costs. In fact, they are almost entirely dependent on things like the Syncrude Food Drive and the Corporate Challenge (on December 1st, Country 93.3 and Rock 97.9, from 7 am - 7 pm). They are dependent on us, people, which means their clients are dependent on us.

And that's the final thing I learned. How many clients? On average they provide 5 clients per day with a hamper. Last year that meant 1,194 food hampers went to homes of those who are hungry. Many of those are families with children. I don't know about you, but that breaks my heart. To see little children go to school hungry is a travesty. To see anyone in our community go hungry is devastating to me. And that's why we have the Food Bank, people.

So, to summarize. When donating to the Food Bank ask yourself this : would I feed it to my family? Does it have nutritional value? Does it address their current needs? Practice "thoughtful giving", and know that your kindness is having the maximum impact. I genuinely appreciate the time Arianna and her staff gave to me, and I now see myself as a more educated ambassador for our Food Bank. My goal was to pass along this knowledge, and I hope I have been able to do so. People, there is no reason for anyone in this city to go hungry - so join me in the practice of thoughtful giving, and let's see that hunger end.

Fort McMurray Food Bank Current Needs
-peanut-free snack foods for the FMPSD 
"Snack Attack" program
-soda crackers
-snack crackers
-diapers in sizes 4,5&6
 (and will trade size 3 diapers for these sizes)
-drinking boxes
-baking supplies
-canned vegetables
-cleaning supplies
-feminine hygiene products

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