New Ottawa Food Bank CEO taking charge at a challenging time

Ottawa Food Bank CEO Rachael Wilson takes the helm amidst COVID-19, and reflects on her history with the OFB, which began 30 years ago, when she volunteered as a tween.

Rachael Wilson becomes the charity's 1st female CEO

New Ottawa Food Bank CEO calls for tackling the root causes of food insecurity

10 months ago
Duration 1:10
Rachael Wilson, the new CEO of the Ottawa Food Bank, says the organization has seen an increase in demand since the start of the pandemic, something that could be alleviated by stable housing and a universal basic income. 1:10

As a young girl looking to make a difference in her community, Rachael Wilson volunteered at the Ottawa Food Bank. Now, three decades later, she's running the place, becoming the charity's first female CEO since its founding in 1984.

Wilson, 43, was first named the food bank's interim CEO in September after the departure of Michael Maidment, who left to lead the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. On Monday, she dropped "interim" from her title.

The leadership change comes amid an intense time for the charity as families grapple with sudden unemployment, business closures and general instability wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are people from all walks of life, people who never imagined that they would need to use a food bank.​​​​​- Rachael Wilson

"We get calls every day from people who are just overwhelmed and emotional, having to use a food bank for the first time," said Wilson. "There are people from all walks of life, people who never imagined that they would need to use a food bank."

The pandemic has brought change to the food bank, too. For the first time, it's experimenting with home delivery, aimed at clients with mobility issues, those who are immunocompromised and others who, for one reason or another, struggle to get out the door. The program now serves about 200 families.

"We didn't want parents to have to take their children out into the community to get the food that they needed," Wilson told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

A volunteer sorts food items in the receiving area of the warehouse at the Ottawa Food Bank in April 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Wilson first volunteered at the Ottawa Food Bank as a 12- and 13-year old. "I remember sorting food into boxes and just being blown away that this existed [and] that there were kids out there who needed food," she recalled.

Wilson attended Canterbury High School and went on to earn a degree in fine arts and theatre from Concordia University in Montreal, but her focus has always been on the management side of things, which she describes as a "skip, hop and a jump" from working in the charity sector.

"Theatre in Canada is definitely not-for-profit. I was used to applying for grants," said Wilson.

Wilson and Prime Mister Justin Trudeau chat during a visit to the Ottawa Food Bank's farm last Canada Day while Trudeau's son Hadrien listens in. (Ottawa Food Bank)

Wilson also worked with Christie Lake Kids, a charity that provides summer camps and after-school help for disadvantaged children.

"It's been a theme throughout my career," she said. "But [the Ottawa Food Bank] definitely hits home for me. It really aligns with my values."

For Wilson, the food bank's vital role in the community was especially evident in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck Ottawa in 2018. She sees parallels with the pandemic. 

"One day everything is fine, and the next day you're needing to use a food bank. So many people are living paycheque to paycheque."

Hannan Alhelwa packs vegetables into a box that will be distributed at Care Centre Ottawa's drive-thru food bank. Alhelwa, a Syrian refugee who came to Canada with her family in 2016, volunteers there four days a week. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Many of the food bank's regular clients are on disability support payments or Ontario Works benefits, while others come just a couple times a year to bridge a gap in their income.

"It's just really hard to wrap your head around that in a city like Ottawa where so many people are affluent ... that there are people out there who still are struggling and need support," said Wilson.

Wilson and her daughter Maggie participate in a food drive at an Ottawa grocery store in 2019. (Ottawa Food Bank)

Wilson has a 15-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, both subject to the occasional stern lecture from their mom. "When my kids are at the table saying, 'I don't like this,' I say, 'I work at a food bank. You will eat that.'"

Wilson said she wants her kids to realize some of their own classmates might be coming to school hungry. "Just because somebody looks like they are doing well or comes to school every day does not mean that they are managing well at home."

With files from CBC's Ottawa Morning

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