The economic downturn in Fort McMurray has created an interesting problem for a local soup kitchen.

Instead of too many mouths to feed, they have too few.

Volunteers at the NorthLife Fellowship Baptist Church are used to serving up to 120 meals a day. But lately, they're dishing out around 60.

Betty King, who's volunteered at the soup kitchen for 15 years, said she isn't sure where everyone's gone — she only hopes that they're safe and not hungry.

"Sometimes you wonder where they're going to sleep, and sometimes you wonder if you're going to see them again," King said.

"Looking at people, it could be me, but for the grace of God."

King moved to Fort McMurray from Newfoundland 36 years ago. Alberta's oilsands hub was just a small town back then, she said.

It took a while to grow up, but the town is nice. It always has been, she added.

She's seen both the heights of the booms and the lows of the busts, a cycle she said happens every seven years or so.

"This is the fifth time I've seen oil prices drop," King said. "But it always bounces back."

Five days a week volunteers arrive at the church at 9 a.m. to prepare hot meals for those who need them. Lunch hour starts at 11:30 a.m.

On a recent Thursday, the smell of a chicken dinner — with all the fixings and dessert — wafted from the kitchen.

kitchen

Volunteers cook lunch at the Northlife Fellowship Baptist Church on Thursday.

Joseph Enverga is the director of the soup kitchen. He moved to Fort McMurray from Toronto about two years ago, where he had a background in church and community work.

He said he's seen countless people come to Fort McMurray for the "campsite dream" of making big money.

Some quickly realize how expensive the northern city is and after a few weeks and no backup plan, they're out of money and struggling, he said.

Still, he added, people remain hopeful. And help isn't too hard to find for those who choose to stay in town.

"A lot of them are hanging on, clinging on to it to turn around," Enverga said.

"But I think in the back of our minds we know that it's going to take a while for Fort Mac to recover. But a lot of us are very hopeful that it won't become a ghost town.

"It's a tight-knit community, lots of people helping each other out. Lots of little pockets of community. Sometimes you have to work hard to find it but it exists, and if you want to belong, you do," he said.

At the end of the last boom, he said the kitchen served around 75 meals a day, with 50 to 70 people coming in every day.

It's the worry of where these people went that bothers King and other volunteers.

"Sometimes you feel sad because you see sad people. Sometimes you feel like I wish I could have done more, but I really don't know how to do that," she said.

"When I came here to work first, I felt in myself, if one person got their life cleaned up and straightened out, that would be for me, that would be my reward.

"And I've seen many."