Refugees, new Canadians struggling to feed children during pandemic, advocates say

Feeding their children has become even more of a struggle for Edmonton refugees and newer Canadians in the wake of the pandemic, say the advocates trying to help them.

Edmonton groups call for province to bring in coordinated aid strategy

Ruke Okome, program manager with Free Footie, prepares to deliver food to families in need. (Submitted by Tim Adams)

Feeding their children has become even more of a struggle for Edmonton refugees and newer Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, say the advocates trying to help them.

They're calling on the province to implement a coordinated aid strategy and say they should be consulted because they are already mobilizing people and resources to ensure vulnerable Edmontonians have enough to eat.

But, they say, emergency relief measures are essential in the meantime.

"We can't wait two weeks to get kids food," said Tim Adams, executive director of Free Footie, a sports league for marginalized youth. 

"So make a long-term, sustainable plan, but lean on partners like us to fill the short term gap. Hunger doesn't wait."

Financial assistance is on the way, the province says. This week the Alberta government unveiled a $60-million emergency fund that will be provided to help social services organizations respond to critical needs.

Of the total, $30 million will go to municipalities, charitable and non-profit organizations that offer social support for seniors, families and other vulnerable Albertans. The other $30 million will provide immediate support to women's shelters and homeless shelters. The money will be disbursed before March 31. 

The federal government is also distributing emergency financial aid that will temporarily boost Canada Child Benefit payments and help Canadians who face unemployment or have to stay home but don't qualify for employment insurance or sick benefits.

'They don't have the savings to stock up'

But the money can't come soon enough for struggling Edmontonians seeking help from agencies like the Alberta Somali Community Centre (ASCC), said executive director Habiba Abdulle.

Since Monday, phone calls from panicked clients haven't let up.

"They don't have the savings to stock up," Abdulle told CBC. "And even if they have that money, the food is not there."
It's a problem made worse by language barriers and a lack of transportation needed to access food bank services, Abdulle said. 

The Alberta Somali Community Centre has been inundated with phone calls since Monday, says executive director Habiba Abdulle. (CBC News)

As well, agencies like hers that are hamstrung by the pandemic can no longer drive clients where they need to go, advocate for them, translate or fill out forms.

ASCC's staff of six, who were already stretched to the limit, are down to one employee — just Abdulle.

The agency's remaining employees, like many Albertans, are at home with their children, due to school closures.

Those closures have created another problem: many low-income families depend on schools for regular meals and snacks.

Abdulle said the situation is also triggering the trauma and horror for newcomers who have fled war and famine.

"One woman said the last time she saw people grabbing large amounts of food was just when they were preparing to flee," said Abdulle, who is now helping 34 families access food.

"So how will these individuals be helped? That's something that needs to be considered and communicated as quickly as possible."

The government said funding under the School Nutrition Program continues to flow to school authorities develop innovative ways to continue providing meals to students.

"Alberta Education is encouraging all school authorities to look at how they can continue to offer these services to their students during these unprecedented times," Diane Carter, press secretary to Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney, said in an email to CBC.

Food bank consolidates services

The Islamic Family Social Services Agency (IFSSA), Free Footie and the new 10,000-member Facebook group, YEG Community Response to COVID-19, are all stepping up efforts to address Edmonton's food gap.

But even agencies such as IFSSA, which distributes 40 food hampers a day, are strained by measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

To minimize physical interaction, hampers are increasingly being delivered to people's doors, which requires more drivers, vehicles and gas. But the agency has fewer people to do more work.

"Some of our volunteers are seniors themselves so we don't want to put them at risk," said Omar Yaqub, IFSSA's executive director. 
Omar Yaqub is executive director of the Islamic Family and Social Services Association. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The Edmonton Food Bank, which had more than 60 depots throughout the city, has shifted its operations to its warehouse at 115th Avenue and 120th Street. The location is not convenient to reach by transit, especially with kids in tow.

"The depots are closing because they are held in places like churches, where the physical venue is closed or closing because of social distancing," said food bank spokesperson Carly Kincaid Williams.

Carter said Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) is assisting in disbursing the emergency funds to community organizations but groups that qualify do not need to be existing FCSS partners. 
"We are currently working on finalizing the criteria for this funding," she said. "We will be reaching out to stakeholders and posting the information to our website as soon as possible."
Services eligible for funding must address the social well-being of those most affected by COVID-19 and measures to limit the spread of the virus. That may include seniors, individuals with chronic medical conditions, caregivers, families with children at home, and individuals with limited access to supports.