Campus Food Bank at the U of A adjusts operations to meet demand despite COVID-19

For the first time in its operating history, the Campus Food Bank is delivering hampers to clients homes

The Campus Food Bank is preparing for the needs of students in the coming months during the COVID-19 pandemic albeit in a slightly different way.

In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the operations of the Campus Food Bank (CFB) have adjusted completely including reducing their operating hours, altering operational processes to maintain social distancing and ensure everything is sanitized, purchasing more of their food, and preparing for future changes during the pandemic. Additionally, the CFB has started delivering food hampers directly to clients.

Cory Hodgson, the executive director of the Campus Food Bank, said since classes moved online on March 15, the CFB has ended their regular volunteer program. They are operating the CFB with just their staff, two full-time and two part time, as well as drop-in volunteers.

Clients now do intake interviews over the phone and receive their hamper delivered to them. Hampers are not able to be picked up from the Students’ Union Building CFB office.

Currently, the CFB is doing 60 deliveries a week with plans to increase to 80 hamper deliveries in the coming weeks. They have also been giving more food per hamper, he added, from three to four days worth to four to six days worth.

“We’ll continue increasing the available delivery slots until we’re meeting the demand we see,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson added that they have been seeing less clients since the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the CFB used to hand out between 60 and 80 hampers per week, he said, but now they give out about 30 hampers per week. They have also been giving more food per hamper, he added, from three to four days worth to four to six days worth.

The CFB usually receives most of their food through donations, but Hodgson said it has become difficult with their reduced hours and health concerns. Anything that is brought in sits for a week to decontaminate it, he added.

Hodgson said the food bank was in the middle of a food drive when the pandemic started. He said it became “really difficult” for people to drop donations off — donations needed by the CFB. They have since moved to purchasing more food themselves.

 “As this goes on, we’ll probably move to more of a purchasing model for the food we distribute rather than relying on donations,” he added.

Some of the funds for purchasing the food comes from the operating costs of the food bank, Hodgson said. However, they have been receiving online donations, which can be used to buy food to distribute to clients.

“We’ve been pretty lucky to receive quite a few donations over this period. A lot of the university community has remembered that we’re open and providing services to those in need,” Hodgson said.

To reduce the risk, CFB staff have been alternating days in teams of two, in case one team gets sick. Hodgson said their experience of the pandemic has been “similar experience to lots of other folks,” in that it changes every day with new stuff coming out.

“There’s been a lot of adjustments, a lot of trying to figure out how do we want to, through all of this [to] ensure we remain open to support students,” he said.

While the Campus Food Bank hasn’t been seeing higher numbers right now, Hodgson said they think they’re in a “holding pattern.” There are questions about what will happen for students after the end of the winter semester, he said, if they are unable to find a summer job and with budget cuts.

“We’ve had a lot of those conversations, about what are the kind of normal things that students experience that cause poverty or cause hardship, and how are these going to be exacerbated by the pandemic and crisis,” he said.

The Campus Food Bank has done lots of adjusting and planning, he said, and while the CFB is already normally open in the summer with reduced hours, lots of the people they help are graduate students who are here year-round. He wondered how many Teaching Assistant (TAs) or Research Assistant (RAs) jobs are continuing with the recent provincial government initiated budget cuts. With spring and summer classes going online, Hodgson also wondered what the need for TAs will be. While the Campus Food Bank doesn’t know the answers to those questions, he said, they are trying to anticipate what might happen. 

“We’ve been really trying to figure out how to gear up and support increased usage as this draws on, [be]cause it’s likely, everybody talks about this, it’s going to be weeks or months that this will be going on for, so we’re looking at it from the long-haul,” he said.

Campus Food Bank starts Hamper Delivery Model

For the first time in its history, the Campus Food Bank is adopting a delivery rather than pick up model.

The Campus Food Bank (CFB) moved to a hamper delivery model, which started during the week of April 20. Currently, they are delivering one day per week, and clients sign up online. Their delivery boundary is the Edmonton area, and the restrictions for accessing the CFB are still the same: clients must be students, staff or alumni up to five years after graduation with a valid ONEcard. 

While the response to the changes the CFB has been “overwhelmingly positive,” there were some people who were uncomfortable coming to campus to access the CFB for various reasons, Hodgson said. In response, they moved to a delivery model for all of their clients.

“The idea is we’ll bring it to them in order to increase access for folks who are maybe uncertain or not comfortable coming in to campus to access the service,” he said.

Hodgson said in this time, some people might be hesitant to use social services, thinking their situation isn’t that bad, or that they can figure it out. He emphasised that the Campus Food Bank is open, has supplies, and is here to help.

“We just want to really emphasise to people, if you need us, or if it would help you through this crisis, please use our service. It’s what we’re here for. Nobody’s every really lived through a pandemic before, this is totally unprecedented, and it’s okay to ask for help and need help in this time. Lots of people are going to need help, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he said.

Madi Corry, CFB programs manager, said everything is set up online for students.

“We’re trying to make it as similar to our old system as possible,” she said.

New clients can sign up through the website, and they are doing new client registration on Tuesdays over the phone, she said. The process is still confidential, she added.

“We’re trying to figure out how do we set up an operational model that we can sustain, that we don’t need to keep tweaking to deal with new recommendations,” Hodgson said. “We’re trying to get ahead of it all so we can set up a more sustainable operational model for the duration of the pandemic.”

Food hampers are being delivered on Thursdays, Corry said, and they have started with 20 spots per day. However, she added, if they see an increase in people trying to access the deliveries, they might open up a second day in the week.

Hampers are delivered in a van the CFB rents from the Students’ Union as part of their lease, and they deliver hampers to clients at some point during the day. They call clients when they’re close-by and confirm they are available to pick up their hampers from their front step, or if they live in an apartment, come down and pick it up from the front. With this model, they are giving out primarily non-perishables for now to ensure the quality of the food, she said. To keep their staff safe, they are not allowed to go into any buildings, and during delivery, Corry added, they will maintain zero contact with clients.

The change to the delivery model was made in response to the changes to the closure of campus and the reduction of SUB’s operating hours, as well as feedback from clients about their comfort coming to campus, she said. This way, they can give out more hampers with less contact, making it safer for clients and staff, she added.

“We wanted to make sure that we were as prepared as possible to get the hampers to people where they are,” Corry said. “This is the first time we’ve done delivery in, to my knowledge, the history of the food bank.”

When they opened the model on the website, in the first few days the first delivery day was almost full, Corry said, and they have had new client registration for almost the entire first day. Clients are able to receive hampers as often as every two weeks, and they have seen clients start to book for every few weeks, she added.

“People are building it into their new-normal lives, which is great to see,” she said.

They suspect they will see an increase in usage, she said, but they haven’t seen enough numbers coming in to be able to tell by publication. However, they have received increased donations, and have been purchasing food to be able to support clients, she added.

“We are well stocked to be able to help these new clients as well as regular ones,” she said.

If they find they can do more hamper deliveries in a day, they will expand, but the plan is to expand to a second day if the day fills up too quickly or they hear that clients can’t get an appointment, she said.

Some of the safety measures they’re taking in light of the pandemic include increased sanitation and cleaning procedures in the CFB office, as well as separating the staff and volunteers into two groups to lower the risk of exposure. This way, if anyone was to get sick, Corry explained, the other team can keep the CFB running. They have also started giving hampers out in plastic bags so clients can take them instead of letting clients take their food out of boxes into their own bags. This will continue with the delivery model, she said, and they will keep the same amount of sanitation, as well as giving their delivery teams gloves and hand sanitizer.

The feedback about the model has been positive, Corry said. When she mentions the model to people, they have asked about if their location is too far, but as long as they live in the Edmonton area, including residences, she said, the CFB is willing to go to them.

“I’ve gotten to have that conversation a few times, ‘We’re happy to do it, we’re in a position that we can, and if it will make your life a little bit easier in the current situation, not having to leave home but have food come to you, then we’re willing to do that’,” she said.

As long as staff still have access to SUB, this model can continue running, Corry said, as one of the reasons for the change in how they provided services was in case people couldn’t come into SUB. This delivery model is their plan going forward as long as it is needed, she said.

“We’re going to keep doing this as long as people are accessing it, so we are intending to stay open and doing deliveries as long as people need us,” she said.

To read more coverage about the work the Campus Food Bank does at the University of Alberta, check out our feature on the organization from the Gateway Magazine January 2020 edition.

UPDATE: On May 19 at 12:01 p.m The Gateway updated the article to reflect an increase in the Campus Food Bank’s hamper deliveries.

Kate Turner

Kate Turner is a third-year Native Studies student and was The Gateway’s Winter 2019 Staff Reporter. She is passionate about human rights, learning languages, and talking to people about their passions. When not furiously typing away, she usually can’t be found because she’s out exploring and having adventures.

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