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Outlook Food Bank facing empty shelves

Food bank asking people to step up

OUTLOOK - It’s distribution day at the food bank. Spread across long tables are hampers that were packed earlier in the day. In 10-minute intervals over the next several hours, individu­als will be coming to collect the box of food that has been packed for them. Gail Borsa, chairperson of the local food bank, will be here until the last hamper is picked up, grateful for the contact she has with some of those who come. “The people are so appreciative,” she says, as tears well up. “They share their stories. Some of them just break my heart.”

This scene plays out every month at the Outlook & District Food Bank located in the Town Hall, where in May, hampers were packed feeding 61 adults and 49 children. A guide cre­ated in consultation with a dietitian makes the process of packing the hampers straight­forward, yet volunteers know it is insufficient to last more than a few meals. “We had hoped we were giving about 10 days of ba­sic supplies but there’s no way we’re close to that,” remarked volunteer Leah Larson.

Everything in the hampers has been donated, thanks to the people who place items in the food bins at local grocery stores or provide cash donations. “We purchase some things,” Larson said, “but it’s all with donated money.”

The organization, which has been active since 1988, buys some supplies each month. “We support local,” Borsa remarked. “We have orders that go in monthly for things like milk and eggs and we make sure we pur­chase that from our stores here.”

Local businesses, organi­zations and individuals have stepped up generously, some­thing Borsa is quick to point out. “This community has been very supportive,” she said. “We are grateful.”

But the needs are rising. The food bank serves a large area encompassing Hanley, Elbow, Hawarden, Strongfield, Milden, Dinsmore, and sometimes Birsay and Lucky Lake. There were 29 hampers put together in May for Outlook, plus an addi­tional seven for another commu­nity served by this food bank. “There’s a lot of food going out these doors,” Larson said.

There were also nine emer­gency hampers needed during the month. In January it was 14. “That’s normal,” Borsa explained. “They are desperate. When you get a call and some­one says ‘I have nothing in the house to eat’, that’s what breaks my heart.”

Those accessing the food bank come from a wide demo­graphic. “Our clients are of all ages,” Larson indicated, “and all walks of life. They are using the food bank for multiple reasons including those with dis­abilities as well as seniors. There are a lot of seniors who need the food bank.” Borsa added, “There are also people who are employed but just can’t feed their family. They are fully employed but can’t make ends meet.”

The rising cost of food is impacting what is go­ing in the hampers each month. Borsa explained, “We were doing apples and oranges, but with the cost of groceries rising we now do apples one month and oranges the next.” Donations of these items are certainly welcomed, but cold storage is limited. Larson said, “If someone wanted to donate some­thing like apples and oranges we’d need to get it just the day before pack­ing the hampers because we don’t have a lot of storage.”

However, there is stor­age for other items and right now the shelves are looking bare. “Cereal,” Borsa said quickly when asked what is needed. “It seems we’re always out of cereal. We also need pasta, canned vegetables, canned fruit, soup, Kraft Dinner, and peanut butter.”

Items not needed are things like cake mixes or pudding. “To make a cake you need eggs and oil,” Larson explained. “Those three eggs are better scrambled than used in a cake mix.” Pudding pres­ents a similar dilemma. “It requires milk and since we give one liter per person in the household, that milk is needed elsewhere.”

Every effort is made to ensure clients have what they need to prepare qual­ity, flavorful meals. Borsa said, “We received a huge amount of lentils so we gave out instructions to help them prepare the lentils.” The same is done with donations of meat such as bison or elk. “We make sure we include a recipe and all the ingredi­ents needed,” she added.

Sometimes unique opportunities present themselves to help clients produce their own food. A couple of years ago pack­ets of garden seeds were given out. One recipient started to cry and told Larson she had a garden spot since moving into low-income housing and could now teach her son to garden. Larson said, “I’d never met her before but she hugged me. She was so happy. That’s why we’re here.”

The food bank is oper­ated by a dozen volunteers including Esther Hen­derson who helps pack hampers and serves on the board. “I was looking for a volunteering opportuni­ty,” she said, “and decided the food bank would be a good one because it’s very necessary.” Henderson finds the work rewarding. “There’s a lot of thank yous. You know they’re in need and the little help we can give they really appreciate.”

Volunteers are crucial, and charting a course for the future is something Borsa thinks about. She started as treasurer in 2012 and stepped in as chairperson in 2014. “We have volunteers who have put in many years, and some who have recently retired. We need to look for people who are willing to step into these roles. I’ve been doing it a long time. Somebody’s got to take over.”

Recent years have been difficult. Borsa explained, “The trends during the last five years have shown that needs are increasing and costs are rising. When I started here we were doing 20 hampers a month and now we’re doing 30 and more.”

The pandemic added pressure and impacted events that normally provided funds for the work. “We saw at the beginning of it definitely an increase in the number of people requesting help,” Borsa said. “Then Lenten Lunches haven’t happened because of the pandemic and that’s a big chunk of money that didn’t happen for three years.”

Borsa’s passion is evident as she reminds people, “this is so worthwhile. We’re here. We are very active. Our shelves always need food, and we are looking for dedicated volunteers that are interested in taking on some leadership roles here. It would be so good to see some younger people get actively involved.”

Each hamper given out means a few more meals for those who need a bit of support. “It’s hand to mouth,” Larson said as she highlighted the current need to stock the shelves. “There’s no fluff. There’s no politics. There’s nothing between food coming off the shelf and going to somebody’s home. It doesn’t get more basic than this.”