New Brunswick

Head of Saint John's largest food bank praises community's generosity during pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the man who heads up Saint John’s largest food bank has seen some desperation, more innovation, a few surprises, a lot of generosity and even a silver lining.

But John Buchanan recognizes 'level of desperation' in some food bank clients

The Saint John Community Food Basket serves the city's central and south end neighbourhoods, and is the city's largest food banks. (Saint John Community Food Basket)

For the man who heads up Saint John's largest food bank, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a wide range of experiences.

The Community Food Basket's executive director John Buchanan has seen a little hardship, some desperation, more innovation, a few surprises, a lot of generosity and even a silver lining.

"It's been unusual, to say the least." Buchanan said, as he and his small staff of volunteers were about to dig into some pizza to mark the end of another week of hard work.

This is a busy food bank that serves Saint John's central and south end neighbourhoods, and most of the work is being done by just six volunteers.

The food bank had to tell most of its other volunteers to stay home as the pandemic hit New Brunswick, because they were in the age group deemed most vulnerable to the illness.

"They didn't want to [stay home]," Buchanan said, "But we just had to tell them we can't take the risk."

John Buchanan, executive director of the Saint John Community Food Basket, says there have been lessons learned from the pandemic. (Saint John Community Food Basket)

COVID-19 has meant a lot of changes in how the food bank operates.

Normally, it uses a "client choice" model, where people are able to browse the shelves and select the items they need.

These days, that's not possible.

Instead, clients must wait outside the building, not always ideal depending on the weather. They're let in one at a time, must wear masks, and are given bags of groceries put together by the volunteers.

Buchanan said it all takes about three minutes per client. 

Before the COVID-19 lockdown, the food basket used a system that allowed clients to choose food from the shelves. That process is no longer possible. (CBC)

When the pandemic first hit the province in March and schools closed, the food bank was expecting to see more families needing the service.

Instead, like most food banks within the city limits, its numbers are actually down.

Buchanan thinks there are a number of reasons for that.

First, there's no doubt some people are afraid they'll be infected and are staying home.

Buchanan said the city has also seen a number of pop-up groups who are now delivering food to people, which eliminates the need to visit a food bank.

Federal programs help

And he also thinks there's more money in the community, and that federal relief programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit are the reason why.

"Absolutely, CERB and the increase in the Canada child benefit," Buchanan said.

"I think a lot more people are shopping at Giant Tiger for groceries because there's more money out there."

But he's quick to point out that food banks in the southwest part of the province, outside of Saint John, are seeing a big increase in people needing help, in some cases as much as 50 per cent.

It's not just corporate donations, it's people dropping in to hand over a $20 or a $50 out of their pockets.John Buchanan

And, Buchanan said, the people using the Community Food Basket now seem to have "a level of desperation" he hasn't seen before, under the combined weight of a pandemic and wondering how they'll continue to feed themselves and their families.

That's why he has such high praise for the generosity of the community.

Buchanan said corporate donations through the pandemic have been strong, including $1 million donations to food banks from both J.D. Irving and McCain Foods and a personal donation from Frank and Julie McKenna of $100,000.

"But it's not just corporate donations, it's people dropping in to hand over a $20 or a $50 out of their pockets."

Buchanan said it allows the food bank to be generous with its clients.

"They're just amazed by how much they get," he said, "Some say they can't eat it all, and we tell them to give it to someone who needs it."

The food bank has also been able to share food with other charities, such as the Romero House soup kitchen, which is just a few blocks away.

While many Saint John food banks have seen a small drop in the number of clients during the coronavirus, Buchanan says those outside the city have seen big increases. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Buchanan said there have already been lessons learned from this pandemic. 

He said the various agencies in the city that deal with food security issues have been talking about ways to work better as a network for situations such as this, "so, if this happens again, we can just flip a switch and be back in business."

And it has led to his own food bank talking about the possibility of delivering food in the future to some clients.

"About 85 per cent of our clients have to walk to get here. Some have mobility issues, some have illnesses, so we're looking at ways we might deliver food."

He said the group would likely partner with an agency like the YMCA to get food to clients who can't get to the food bank.

But Buchanan said, for now, it is focused on the pandemic, something he believes will be an issue for some time yet.

"We're in this for the long haul."

About the Author

Steven Webb


Steven Webb is a producer for CBC based in Saint John


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