Adapting to Change: The Crucial Role of Food Banks in Supporting Minority Communities

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With the holidays in full swing, everyone is getting into the spirit of giving.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, many non-profit and charitable organizations such as Canada’s food banks are facing a challenging time within their communities. An estimated 4.5 million Canadians experience food insecurity. Corporate giving is more important than ever this year as many charity programs have been affected by the pandemic.

Image courtesy of Richmond Food Bank

We had the pleasure of speaking with Hajira Hussain, Executive Director at Richmond Food Bank Society (RFBS), whose passion for helping people has enabled her to make a difference in the communities she serves. As she explained, not only is corporate giving a great way to give back to the community, it also helps boost morale in the workplace. Giving can come in the form of monetary donations, company-wide food drives, corporate fundraisers, and other unique initiatives.

WHO THEY SERVE

Located in Richmond, BC, the RFBS is an organization that provides food assistance, advocacy, and related support for community members in need. In a typical week, the RFBS serves more than 2,200 people. Over half their clientele identified as female, roughly two in five (22%) new immigrants, and about one in 10 (9%) were people with disabilities. Contrary to common misconceptions about food bank clientele, the homeless population only makes up four to five percent.

The need is high among minority groups, and many face substantial language barriers which can prevent them from seeking assistance. Many of the RFBS’ clients speak Mandarin, Tagalog, Cantonese, Arabic, and Russian. 

Additionally, many within these minority communities also lack relevant Canadian work experience, hindering their ability to find jobs. As a result, a majority end up on some form of income assistance or working minimum wage jobs, struggling to provide for themselves and their families. As Hussain described, “food bank usage becomes a lifeline for them.”

RIPPLE EFFECTS AND A SHIFT IN CLIENTELE

The RFBS’ Food Access Report found most food programs saw an initial decline in users at the start of the pandemic. As restrictions were lifted in mid-May, they began to see a gradual increase, particularly from families, and adapted to these demographic changes by providing additional groceries when possible.

With an urgent need for greater food bank accessibility, the RFBS began welcoming clients from outside of Richmond such as Vancouver, Coquitlam, and Langley. The shift in clientele drove many of the changes in food bank logistics and operations.

Volunteers provide much of the needed help at food banks to collect, sort, pack, and distribute donated food, while providing outreach and information to their clients. However, because most volunteers are seniors, many were high-risk for potential COVID complications. Others were traveling from neighbouring cities and as COVID-19 limitations increased and the pandemic took hold, the RFBS saw volunteer numbers decrease significantly.

Hussain, along with other RFBS staff, began to take on multiple roles to fill the gaps left by the declining volunteer base, while continuing to oversee the food bank’s operations.

Image courtesy of Richmond Food Bank

DISMANTLING STIGMA AND THE DEPENDENCE MYTH

There’s a stigma attached to food bank usage, as it’s often perceived as a form of charity, which can leave people feeling uncomfortable or ashamed.

“It is a challenge, especially among Asians,” said Hussain. “Back in our country, we never had food banks. You would usually find needy people on the streets or outside religious organizations lined up for their food handout.” It is much different in Canada and food banks are not just for the poorest of the poor but for anybody struggling to put food on the table. Yet, many people fail to seek help. 

Hussain attributes the stigma to a fear of judgment, which may prevent someone in asking for help and seeking assistance from food banks.

She also notes that this barrier may be due to previously being in a position of giving, however due to unexpected setbacks, such as a job loss or sudden expenses can potentially lead to a cycle of debt that some may struggle to get out of if they don’t seek support.

As a community, it’s important to work together to combat the stigma and dismantle the dependence myth – the idea that food banks create dependence among the people they help.

Clients often see food as a discretionary expense and opt to cut back on food expenditures while prioritizing other expenses, like rent and utilities.

Hussain explained, however, that people who use the food bank rarely use it forever. It’s typically just to bridge a short period of time when they need extra support.

To help reduce fear and barriers to getting help, an online registration form was also implemented. RFBS staff would reach out immediately after someone submitted a form, and the subsequent conversation would help them overcome the fear of showing up at a food bank for the first time.

A TIME TO PIVOT AND INNOVATE

Like many businesses and organizations, RFBS needed to pivot as the world shifted to combat the spread of COVID.

Its food distribution service being mission critical, they began to offer grocery assistance outdoors, close-to-home deliveries, and accessible drive-through options. They also started to distribute hampers of non-perishable items.

With a four-fold increase in demand and change in delivery of the RFB’s services, additional changes also included extended hours, as well as the express pick up and online registration options described earlier.

With the amount of adaptation the RFBS has gone through to reach its current state of operations, Hussain holds cautious optimism about the idea of navigating their way back to its previous state in a post-pandemic world.

WAYS TO GIVE

Image courtesy of Richmond Food Bank

There is an urgent need for monetary donations, as many food banks now rely on these donations to enable food banks to make bulk food purchases that can be easily divided and distributed into hampers for clients. This was much easier achieved before the pandemic, with the support of corporate volunteer groups.

“Having corporate groups was fun because they had a different level of energy and enthusiasm.” This enthusiasm drove innovative fundraising initiatives.

She described one company that held a mask sale during the pandemic, where for every person who posted a photo on social media, the company would make a donation to the food bank. Another individual organized a samosa sale at her workplace, raising over $1,000.

As a non-profit leader, Hussain is grateful for the support and impact businesses have on combating stigma and raising awareness of food banks. “When you are running a food drive at your business, you’re helping us share the message and you are being our ambassadors.” 

Most importantly, if you find yourself in a situation where you can give financially this holiday season, you can do so by supporting the Richmond Food Bank Society, or your local food bank.