Downturn keeping food bank busy

January generally means a lull for the Red Deer Food Bank. Not this year.

January generally means a lull for the Red Deer Food Bank.

Not this year.

Food Bank executive director Fred Scaife said staff are being run off their feet, storage areas are overflowing and phones are ringing off the hook.

“We’ve had to set a limit on how many hampers we can actually do in a day because we don’t have the physical space and the manpower to deal with all of the requests coming in on a daily basis,” said Scaife.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” added Scaife, who has been helping feed local residents for almost 20 years and whose food bank is a regional distribution centre for a 22,000-square-km chunk of Central Alberta.

“The traffic goes on non-stop. The increases in client demand are incredible,” he said.

The last time he had to limit hampers was in 2008, when the world financial crisis peaked. That experience prompted the food bank to change its layout and systems to improve efficiency, moves that have paid off for many years.

This time around, the warehouse has already been re-arranged again to provide more space for hampers. But there is not much else that can be improved with the staff and space available.

“What concerns me is the busiest month of the year is yet to come, and that’s February.”

That is the month when the consequences of Christmas spending and crunch time for unpaid bills hits.

Scaife said the oilpatch downturn has a lot to do with the number who are struggling to put food on their tables. While oilpatch job cuts are an obvious sign of slumping oil prices, the financial impact creeps into every sector.

Lower-income households are the most vulnerable to economic downturns. They are typically walking an economic tightrope to begin with.

On top of that, they hold the kinds of jobs that make them the first staffers to go when budgets are tight and last to be rehired, he said.

“We knew it was coming from September on. When November hit, literally, all hell broke loose. We had lineups out the door.”

Scaife said it’s obvious by their lack of familiarity with the documentation required such as ID and proof of address, that many of those coming for help have never been to a food bank before.

More volunteers would be welcomed to help pack groceries, he said.

“If we had a few more bodies that would make the work in the hamper room a little better.”

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com