Janet Lindhout fills a hamper at the Red Deer and District Food Bank on Tuesday.

Janet Lindhout fills a hamper at the Red Deer and District Food Bank on Tuesday.

The cupboards are bare

“You know darn well that they are only one or two paycheques away from the problem.”

“You know darn well that they are only one or two paycheques away from the problem.”

That’s Peggy Macofka, executive director for Rimbey Family and Community Support Services (FCSS), talking about some of the folks who use the food bank in that community.

She and Rimbey Food Bank co-ordinator Katherine Winters agree — they are seeing new families that might have been considered better off now calling on the food bank for help.

Time are tougher this year than they have been in a long time, and many of the 11 food banks in Central Alberta are seeing strong increases in the number of people they help feed.

It’s no mystery why — Alberta’s economy is suffering from the continuing drop in oil prices. Layoffs and work shortages are becoming commonplace, and with Christmas just about a month away, food banks are expecting to be busier than normal.

In October they saw six new families that they had never met before. The total was 20 families, comprised of 31 adults and 24 children. Normally they see about 12 families in a month.

The new people in October were young families for the most part that had been previously employed but had been laid off or run into a shortage of work.

“So far we’ve been able to manage, donations are strong,” said Macofka, but she admits they are a little worried about Christmas. Last year they gave out about 45 Christmas hampers but this year they are expecting 55 to 65.

In Rocky Mountain House, Dan Gonzales, director of the Lord’s Food Bank, said they have seen at least a 20-per-cent increase in clients over the past three months.

In fact they set a record in September when they handed out 463 hampers, only to set another record in October of 501 hampers.

“It became very, very busy — meaning the demand for food is up substantially,” Gonzales said.

“It’s just been going up on a steady basis in the last four or five months.”

He is a little concerned about being able to meet the need.

“It’s nip and tuck right now. I’m hoping it doesn’t get much worse than around 500, because at that level the amount of food going through is very substantial.”

In a normal month, when the economy is better, they give out about 350 hampers. The food bank covers a large area, which includes about 36,000 people. They service all the way out to the Big Horn Reserve, halfway to Drayton Valley, halfway to Caroline and halfway to Red Deer. It is one of the top 10 food banks in Alberta in terms of the amount of food given out.

“We’re hearing a lot of … people not getting as many hours and so that’s of course hurting different people,” Gonzales said. Most of their clients are families.

“We give out $700,000 worth of food in a year.”

Their Christmas campaign, called the Turkey Drive, is now on with a $55,000 goal. Some of the money will be used through the year to purchase extra food, but they do give out about $30,000 worth of food in Christmas hampers alone, he said.

On just the first day of registration, they had 46 applications for Christmas hampers already. The registration goes on for a month.

“Sometimes people, because of the economy, they are even more generous because they recognize the need,” Gonzales said.

One business that had never donated before just gave them 600 cans of food. “People understand we are hurting a little more than usual, so that’s pretty neat.”

Executive director of the Red Deer Food Bank, Fred Schaife said demand, like everywhere else, has “skyrocketed.”

From October 2014 to October 2015, they saw the single biggest increase in one particular service they have ever seen.

The walk-in service where people can select bread, potatoes, fruits and vegetables went up by 112 per cent over the previous October. In 2014 there were 670 accesses in the client service area compared with 1,419 accesses this year.

These are the people who are almost making ends meet and the majority of them will never actually apply for a hamper, Schaife said.

Overall, the hamper line increased from October 2014 to October 2015 was 35 per cent.

Red Deer Food Bank handed out 390 hampers in October 2014 compared with 473 last month. In 2014 this helped 533 adults and 251 children, but this year hampers helped considerably more — 637 adults and 440 children.

The chances of getting repeats in those numbers are slim because they pack enough food in each hamper to last a good number of days, Schaife said.

Recent successful food drives means they don’t expect to run out of food anytime soon, he said, but the increased numbers do put a strain on them because they are spending more buying meat, milk and margarine. This amounts to $2,500 to $3,000 each month.

“It really seemed to bust loose about six to eight weeks ago. Not unusual now to see in our client service area 15 and 20 people at a time. Two years ago it may have been six or eight people.”