Dedicated volunteers keep food bank running smoothly during pandemic

A photo of the food bank volunteers outside in Westboro in front of a food delivery truck,
From left to right: Lori Crawford, Anne Borde and Peter Newlands brave the rain to unload food from an Ottawa Food Bank truck on Aug. 27. Photo courtesy of the Westboro Region Food Bank.

By Matthew Horwood

Despite a decline in volunteers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Westboro Region Food Bank (WRFB) is continuing to serve people in need in the surrounding community.

The WRFB was established by All Saints’ Anglican Church Westboro in the 1980s to serve the area bound by the Ottawa River, Broadview Avenue to Island Park Drive and Dovercourt Avenue.  

In 2005, the WRFB became a member agency of the Ottawa Food Bank and began receiving regular food deliveries from their warehouse. With a 2011 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the WRFB purchased a refrigerator and two freezers which allowed the organization to begin providing perishables.

Lori Crawford, coordinator at the WRFB, said before the pandemic there were 51 volunteers helping out once or twice a month. Now there are just 19. To make up for this shortfall, the remaining volunteers have “amped up” their commitments and are assisting the food bank a few times a week.

There was also a substantial drop in patrons utilizing WRFB’s services around March, but Crawford said their waiting room is starting to get busy again. 

“Initially, people were really apprehensive and running out with their groceries, and now they like to chat and tell us how they are doing again, which is great,” Crawford said. “I think they are missing the contact of people and being out.” 

The WRFB has responded to COVID-19 by encouraging physical distancing among patrons and by frequently sanitizing the church. Through the Ottawa Food Bank, home delivery can be organized for those who are medically vulnerable or who may be quarantined due to COVID-19. 

Crawford said the WRFB’s mandate is to provide patrons with three to five days of food for one visit per month, typically. But 60 per cent of families accessing the food bank are coming in every few weeks.

“We say to them, if you really need to come down multiple times a month, please do. You can fill your shelves and fridges, you don’t have to feel anxious about not having food on the table,” she said.

Since March, the WRFB has served 187 households, including 295 adults and 117 children monthly. Crawford said they are seeing “new addresses pop up, including people that we never would have thought would need us.” This even includes a few families that were formerly donors to the WRFB, that now have to utilize their services. 

“That first step is difficult for families, especially if they’ve never been in that situation. People feel obliged to tell us their story and explain themselves, and they shouldn’t have to,” Crawford said. “We are there for them and we want to relieve that anxiety and pressure.”

A photo of a volunteer at the Westboro Region Food Bank carrying boxes of food.
Connie Howes-Davidson, a volunteer with the Westboro Region Food Bank, unloads food from an Ottawa Food Bank truck. Photo courtesy of the Westboro Region Food Bank.

The WRFB offers a wide range of groceries to patrons, including pantry staples and fresh perishable items such as eggs, milk and meat, as well as personal hygiene products.

Crawford said the WRFB also receives fresh fruits and vegetables from the Ottawa Food Bank Farm, Woodpark Community Garden and their own five-plot community garden located at All Saints’ Church.

“We have a dedicated gardener producing all kinds of great stuff. It’s really cool to be able to pass this off to our neighbours and say, ‘hey, this was picked today from the side of our church!’” Crawford said.

It can be difficult for large families and senior citizens to take bulky groceries back home in shopping bags, according to Crawford. As part of their health and wellness initiative, the WRFB recently purchased over 40 shopping carts and distributed them to patrons to help. As an added benefit, the carts encourage people to stay active by walking to the food bank. 

Crawford said part of what makes WRFB unique is the personal relationships volunteers and clients develop, with many getting to know each other on a first name basis. 

“They bless and thank us all the time, and they are overwhelmingly grateful that we’ve remained open,” she said. “That encourages our volunteers to come back and pitch in even more for the community because we are making a difference.”

Sarah Brown, a volunteer at WRFB for over 10 years, said she has enjoyed getting to know a number of clients and volunteers at the food bank, and she believes everyone has their own unique story to tell.

Brown initially began volunteering at WRFB because she was a member of All Saints’ Church and was looking for an activity to do with her daughter. Since then, Brown has served the food bank in various roles, including as its coordinator for over five years. 

Brown said during the pandemic, she decided to up her volunteering time to once or twice a week. 

“I decided I was healthy enough to continue, and there was still a real need in the community,” she said. “And if I didn’t do it, then who else was going to help?”

For more information, please visit The Westboro Region Food Bank is located at 354 Madison Ave. 

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