'It's just not right': Mother seeking food bank aid denied because of where she lives

A mother from the Alexander First Nation, northwest of Edmonton, was turned away empty handed from a nearby food bank because her home doesn’t fall in the territory it serves.

Experience highlights a gap in the system, says provincial food bank association

Sharleena Sauve asked for helped from the Morinville Food Bank, but was told that the Alexander First Nation wasn't part of the territory it serves. (David Bajer/CBC)

A mother from the Alexander First Nation, northwest of Edmonton, was turned away empty-handed from a nearby food bank because her home doesn't fall in the territory it serves. 

Sharleena Sauve went to the Morinville Food Bank on Dec. 11 to ask for help. She told CBC News that her interaction with the volunteer at the counter was friendly at first.

"He was very nice at first, but when he found out where I came from, that I live on Alexander, his demeanour changed completely," Sauve said. 

The mother of three young children was told that people from the reserve, located less than 10 kilometres east of Morinville, can't access services from the food bank.

Sauve was shocked. 

"I pretty much cried the whole way home. It's just not right," she said. "What about people that are worse off? It's so wrong."

Sharleena Sauve was turned away at the Mornville food bank. 2:39

The food bank doesn't serve people outside of its territory because it doesn't have the resources to do so, said Morinville Food Bank president Ken Skjersven.

"If we did that, we wouldn't last two weeks, everything would be gone," Skjersven said. "We need to have border limits."

'It's not right'

Sauve is Métis and doesn't have status with the Alexander First Nation. She lives there with her common-law husband, who is currently out of work and receives social assistance from the band. 

The couple's financial situation became dire in early December when they had to replace their broken washer and dryer.

With three children under the age of four, including a two-month-old baby girl, the family couldn't go without, Sauve explained. 

"It took away from our other expenses, especially with the Christmas season."

The band runs an emergency food program that can help members, but only once, according to its website.

Sauve said she doesn't know if she would have qualified for help.

"Plus, I don't want to take away from someone that might be worse off." 

She called several other food banks in the area to find support but was told the reserve wasn't included in their territories either. 

"People from Alexander, if they sincerely need help, I want them to know where they can go and be accepted just like anybody else," Sauve said. "It's not right that they're not." 

The Morinville Food Bank is run entirely by volunteers. (David Bajer/CBC)

'There are gaps'

Sauve's experience highlights the significant gaps in services that exist within the food bank network, said Food Banks Alberta executive director Stephanie Walsh-Rigby.

"There is a misconception that food banks are either an arm of the government or they're a service that's available to everyone," Walsh-Rigby said. 

"Honestly, I wish that was the case, but because they are started, owned, and operated individually by their community, there are gaps and areas where there is no service." 

Each food bank is a private entity that determines its own territory, she explained. 

"There's only so far they can stretch that dollar," added Walsh-Rigby. "To absorb a whole nearby community would be almost impossible without some sort of financial plan in place to make that happen."

People with nowhere to turn can contact Food Banks Alberta, and the organization will try to find other resources for them, she said. 

"We're happy to help navigate somebody through that if they find themselves in one of those spots and really don't know what to do."

Food Banks Alberta executive director Stephanie Walsh-Rigby says there are gaps within the food banks network, especially in rural areas. (David Bajer/CBC)

No easy solution  

Sauve hopes food banks can show more compassionate toward people who aren't able to make ends meet.

"What kind of world do we live in when you can't even get a loaf of bread?"

Determining who should get support based on their location is unfair, Sauve said. 

"When I'm financially comfortable, I've always helped and donated," she added. "Just because a community isn't contributing on a higher aspect, it doesn't mean that someone on a personal level is not."

Sauve's feelings are understandable, said Walsh-Rigby, but most food banks are already struggling to meet the increased demand for their services.

"It can be overwhelming at times to try to manage all of the demands," Walsh-Rigby said. 

"Unfortunately these gaps do make it challenging, and I think it's something we have to really look at as a province on how we can better address that."

About the Author

Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca