'We're not what you'd expect': Food bank users defy stereotypes

As CBC Calgary ramps up its annual CBC Food Bank Drive, meet some of the people who benefit from your generosity. And be prepared to be surprised.

Calgary Food Bank serves 200 struggling residents every day

Almost 80,000 people used food banks in Alberta in 2016, twice as many on a per-capita basis than in 2008. (Facebook/St. Andrews Food Bank)

Louise Geldorp wears a tidy white blouse and a green sweater vest a with a stylish scarf tied around her neck.

"You could walk right past me and think I was working in any tower downtown," Geldorp says.

"We're not what you'd expect."

But, sadly, the only work Geldorp is doing these days, is trying to find a job.

She tells a story you can hear repeated in kitchens across the city these days — two lay offs in six years. The first lay off led her to debt and depression. The second one, to the food bank.

That first trip

A friend drove Geldorp to the food bank for the first time back in July. She still remembers those twin feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Louise Geldorp started using the Calgary Food Bank in July 2016, after being laid off for the second time. "So, it's come to this," she remembers thinking as she made her first trip there. (Submitted)

"So this is what it's come to," went through her head.

But still she walked up to that hamper request desk, and like 200 other people every day, she asked for help.

"When I was first laid off in 2009, I didn't ask for any help. I didn't get any E.I., I didn't take any of these resumé-writing classes."

She got work from 2010 to 2016, and when that second lay off happened, she knew that going it alone only made things worse.

"There's no shame in asking for help," says Geldorp, who now spends her days taking resumé-writing classes and volunteering at The Walk-In Closet, a not-for-profit that fits women looking for work with business attire.

So far, she has taken three hampers, and tries not to waste any of the food she gets.

"We couldn't eat some of the food they gave us. So we packed it back up and took it to the Veterans' Food Bank."

Some 79,293 people used food banks in Alberta in 2016, according to Food Bank Canada's annual Hungercount report. That's twice as many, on a per-capita basis, than in 2008.

Long time client

Larysa and Kelly Armstrong have relied on the Food Bank on and off for 20 years. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Larysa Armstrong opens the door to her tiny one-bedroom apartment in Bowness and makes sure the cats don't escape.

"They are rescue cats," she says bending over to pick one up. "Their needs come before ours."

I was amazed that everyone looked me in the eye and was so friendly- Larysa Armstrong

Armstrong has been using the food bank on and off for 20 years — and there are no signs that will change.

Armstrong suffers from a number of mental health problems that she says "mean I'm only emotionally stable when I'm not working."

Even when her husband was working, they still needed the occasional hamper to get supper on the table. But now that he's lost his job, they need it more frequently.

Anyone can automatically receive up to three hampers in a year, with 30 days between each of them. But after that, you need a referral from a social services agency, like CUPS to access more food.

Armstrong had to get that referral, which she says was embarrassing, though typical of most food bank users. A third of those who access help are on fixed income from the government.

"Normally my husband goes to get the food, but recently I went with him, and I was amazed that everyone looked me in the eye and was so friendly."

Armstrong remembers recently, they got a cake mix in their hamper.

"We bought some whip cream and spent the day baking. We like spending time together. It was really fun."