British Columbia

'We're not the answer to food insecurity': Surrey Food Bank serves many needs with few resources

Food banks are trying to provide healthier foods like vegetables and proteins, but Surrey Food Bank's executive director says it's not easy on a tight budget.

With limited resources, big demand, food banks challenged to provide adequate, nutritious food

Surrey Food Bank client Karen Alexander says she needs to rely on the food bank because she can't afford much else after paying for her rent and bills. (Liam Britten/CBC)

The Surrey Food Bank opens at 9:30 a.m. PT on weekdays. By 9:50 a.m. on a recent Friday, there were already about 120 people in line or picking out items like soups, noodles, apples, potatoes and pastries.

Karen Alexander is one of them. She says she is on social assistance and has been coming to the food bank for years.

She lives with a roommate, Myron, who she says has had five heart attacks. Furthermore, since his mobility scooter was stolen, he can't leave their home, so she has to take care of his food needs.

"My bills are high, my rent's high and my rent's going up," she said. "That's why I come to the food bank. Because it's so expensive.

"Sometimes I collect bottles for extra food, sometimes I panhandle when I have to, y'know?"

Not having enough food is a major health concern for her. 

She says on her own, it's a struggle to get nutritious food like vegetables, so she foresees continuing to use the food bank.

On a recent Friday, only an hour after opening, approximately 120 people had come to the Surrey Food Bank. Some were inside picking items, but many more were lined up outside. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Many different needs

Surrey Food Bank executive director Marilyn Hermann says food banks try to focus on providing nutritious food to meet the needs of people like Alexander.

But they also have to meet the needs of seniors, people with chronic health problems and people who eat culturally-specific diets, like the many Syrian refugees in Surrey who regularly visit.

Children are another area of focus: Hermann says the Surrey Food Bank has one of the highest proportions of users under 18 of any food bank in Canada. That means about $10,000 is spent every six weeks on baby formula alone.

Marilyn Hermann is the executive director of the Surrey Food Bank. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Even for people without special dietary needs, providing fruits, vegetables and proteins is a challenge when money is tight and donations might not always fit the bill.

"Canned fruit and vegetables that we get at Christmastime, our supply runs out very, very quickly," she said. "When we can't get fresh fruits, we like to provide canned fruit, preferably without sugar in it. So if we have the money, we're able to purchase that type of an item.

"Protein is also a tough one … canned fish, canned tuna, canned salmon and then periodically, about every quarter, we make a meat purchase. But that's very, very costly."

Visits every 14 days, but food only lasts for 3

Clients of the Surrey Food Bank can visit once every 14 days, but they only receive about three or four days' worth of food at a time.

Food banks are often seen as a default solution to the problem of food insecurity, but with usage up again for the third year in a row, they are feeling the pinch.

Hermann says food banks do their best, but can't provide for the full needs of everyone.

A sample food hamper arranged by staff at the Surrey Food Bank. (Liam Britten/CBC)

"We're not the answer to food insecurity. We admit that," she said. "We're not proud to be here. But we are here. And the reality is people are needing us … we've become an essential service."

But Hermann says that's not the way it should be. She wants governments to start recognizing access to food as a basic need and put more effort into providing food security.

"There's a lot of judgements made about people who come to a food bank, and the reality is, in my 17 years [working in food banks], they're people like you and I," she said.

Hermann says she can see how poor food security can strike anyone through the changing faces of food bank clients: more seniors, more children and more families who were, until recently, economically stable.

Clients of the Surrey Food Bank make up their own hampers based on the items available. Here's what one man took home with him. (Liam Britten/CBC)