British Columbia

Food bank clients struggle with access as Greater Vancouver Food Bank centralizes services

Community groups say hundreds of individuals used to access 12 neighbourhood distribution sites on a weekly basis and have to travel much greater distances after the Greater Vancouver Food Bank centralized its services.

Neighbourhood distribution centres are shutting down, leading to longer commutes to pick up basics

The Greater Vancouver Food Bank has centralized much of its distribution services at its main warehouse in Burnaby. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

Low-income families and seniors across Vancouver are having a harder time accessing food after neighbourhood distribution sites were shut down by the Greater Vancouver Food Bank at the start of the pandemic.

Community groups say hundreds of individuals used to access each of the 12 neighbourhood locations on a weekly basis and now have to travel much greater distances to a few central locations.

One of the sites to shut down was run out of the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House which was being used by over 350 clients weekly.

"We knew that people would be coming to our door looking for food and everybody was very panicked and scared," said executive director Zahra Esmail. "The thought of not having access to basic food if you're vulnerable during the time that this emergency hit was really not a good option for us." 

The Greater Vancouver Food Bank says it had no choice but to close the pop-up programs it used to operate across the city when physical distancing and sanitizing guidelines came into effect in mid-March.

"The big concern for us was not only keeping our clients safe from the spread of the pandemic, but our volunteers, but also our staff," said food bank CEO David Long. "If anybody was to catch the COVID-19 virus on the food bank team, then we would probably all end up in quarantine and then we would be in a much worse situation."

Greater Vancouver Food Bank CEO David Long says the agency had to shut down its neighbourhood distribution sites because there wasn't enough space to ensure physical distancing. (Doug Kerr/CBC)

The GVFB centralized its distribution at two locations in Vancouver — the Mount Pleasant Community Centre and Queen Elizabeth Theatre — and continued to distribute food from its main warehouse in Burnaby.

Traveling risky for food bank clients

CBC News spoke to a mother of five children in East Vancouver who says her trips to the food bank suddenly went from one 15-minute bus ride to an hour-long commute involving the SkyTrain, multiple buses, and a long walk.

"I haven't been able to go so often since they moved because of mobility issues, which makes it really, really hard," said the mother in her 30s who has been granted confidentiality by CBC News.

She also said the Burnaby warehouse, where she goes for food, frequently has long lineups.

"It kind of is a degrading process now," said the mother. "It used to be that they hand out snacks to the kids [...] it used to be a little bit more humane."

Esmail says commuting to any of the three locations wasn't a safe option for the vulnerable people in South Vancouver, many of whom are already immunocompromised.

"We couldn't imagine asking seniors to get on transit and take two or three buses to get to a place 45 to 60 minutes away from their home in a time when all of us were being told you had to stay close to home, you should try to self isolate," she said. 

Instead, South Vancouver Neighbourhood House set-up an emergency food program in its multipurpose room with refrigerators and food supplied by the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. The food bank also offered grocery bag deliveries to a number of community organizations.

The South Vancouver Neighbourhood House started running its own distribution site with supplies from the Greater Vancouver Food Bank after the pandemic hit. (South Vancouver Neighbourhood House/Facebook)

The emergency program in South Vancouver has now come to an end as the space is needed for the house's other community programming.

Drop in demand

The executive director of the West End Seniors Network says over 300 seniors in the neighbourhood faced similar challenges accessing food when the food bank shut down its West End Food Hub in mid-March.

"We had a lot of seniors who were scared, who were really concerned about their well-being, concerned about if they needed to start paying more for the food staples that they relied on from the food hub location," said Anthony Kupferschmidt.

The Greater Vancouver Food Bank acknowledged that the number of clients accessing its distributions sites dropped by approximately 10 per cent after the pandemic hit, but that number has slowly crept back to normal levels.

"We're seeing a lot of new clients signing up for the first time coming and using the food bank," said Long.

The food bank had to give up the Queen Elizabeth Theatre site when the City of Vancouver restarted some programs there. It expects that it will also have to shut down the Mount Pleasant site by the end of September or October as community centres reopen.

The agency is urgently looking for a temporary space in Vancouver until the lease on a new food distribution location and mini-warehouse begins in January 2021.