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What is the Wood Buffalo Food Bank? A Change of Opinion on a Needed Community Organization

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I have always been a supporter of food banks. I have helped raise tons of food in places I worked in Montreal for the CFL, then again with Purolator who has a huge program with serious competition between different depots, and then through the media with food drives and interviews on my radio show. Even though I knew food banks were a necessary service to offer, it never really rang in why communities need food banks. I thought of food banks as handouts, and something I would never need. I could feel good about myself if I gave some mac and cheese and a can of tomato soup for some folks down on their luck. Let me tell you, my opinion has changed!

When I got here to Fort McMurray I was hired at Country 93.3, and through that position I got involved with the Syncrude Food Bank Drive. It was this community effort that really tuned me into what a food bank is really all about. During the organization of it I saw they had shopping lists with all kinds of different things on it…and they all were not food. I thought, who are they to tell me what I should donate to the food bank? I give my can of tomato soup and my box of mac and cheese, what else do people in an emergency need? Well let me tell you, apparently I was not the only person to think like that, because when I got into the warehouse of the Fort McMurray Food Bank there was a wall of mac and cheese, and another with cases of tomato soup, both stacked up to the ceiling. Another thing I noticed was that there was no walk-in coolers or freezers all they had was a beat up all fridge that cost more to repair than it was worth for fresh produce or frozen meat, almost everything was in a can or a box…it started to get my mind clicking to why they had shopping lists, and think about when you go grocery shopping what else do you get? Soap, diapers, toothpaste, razors are all things you would pick up, and those are also things that people look to the food bank for.

Ahhh, now things are making sense. Well now I can help people give better to the food bank, don’t just give mac and cheese and a can of tomato soup, give other canned items and some toiletries too. I guess I almost had it, but I still had some learning and mind expansion to do.

Throughout the next year the Fort McMurray Food Bank turned into the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and they got a walk-in cooler and freezer. For the first time ever, they could start to offer fresh veggies to their clients. This was huge, and I was about to find out why. I kept talking to Executive Director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank, Arianna Johnson, about different things the food bank was doing and how I could help simply by doing an interview on my show for a cause. It was a no brainer; I supported the food bank, so why not have her on. I also learned over this time some of the social ramifications of people not having proper nutrition. Being hungry makes tempers flare, adults are less productive at work, kids learn less in school and are always restless, so you take all of these factors in one family and you can see that eating everything out of a box or a can could lead to the involvement of social services, health care, RCMP or any number of government services. Only because people are hungry? Hold on…if people ate proper nutritious food, we could save the strain on a maxed out social sector? Why can we not get these people proper food…and what can I do to make a change in the way people think of food banks and how they give? I was about to embark on one of the most educational voyages I have taken in my life.

We had just finished another record breaking food drive for a second year with the annual Syncrude Food Bank drive with Country 93.3, and Arianna came to me and other local media folks to take part in the Food Bank Hamper Challenge. We would eat out of a food hamper that the Wood Buffalo Food Bank would give to an average person for one month. Since my wife and I love to do things together, we decided to do the challenge together, and really how hard is this going to be? I am thinking I am going back to my radio school days of eating for a month. Mr. Noodles and tomato soup for a month…oh and don’t forget mac and cheese. This will be too easy! I have no problem admitting I am wrong, and this is one of those times because this was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

We didn’t want to put a strain on the resources that the Food Bank had, so we asked for a list of what would be in a typical 2 person hamper and went shopping. What we got from the food bank was nowhere near the amount of food that could actually sustain 2 grown adults for 30 days, and what we were about to learn about the food bank…and each other…was about to raise its ugly head. Let’s go to the end of day 4 when the meal choices started to wain considerably, mostly because I ate the good food like the cans of tomato soup and the mac and cheese in the first 2 days. We were making our evening meal of Lipton’s chicken side dish and a can of minced ham that has since been given the name of salt with a side order of salt with some salt on the side, and we realized that everything we were eating had twice the daily limit of salt in it. This can’t be good for high blood pressure, heart problems and it makes you retain water! By the end of week one we also found out that we didn’t like to look at each other very much since I could not have my morning Tim’s XL tea or my 2 litres of cola every day! Everything my wife would say sounded like an argument, and it got so heated that we actually almost separated. Just the frustration of eating food that couldn’t keep up with us…we are both workaholics, and we like to work 10-12 hours every day…and the amount of food we were eating couldn’t support us. We were run down, and it was starting to show on my radio program and in my public appearances, and my wife could see her work piling up. We lasted 15 days, and when you can afford to eat out, grab a tea at Timmy’s…it is really hard. I know first world problems, but of all the people who started the challenge, only one finished the entire challenge for the full 30 days. I really wish that you eat out of a food hamper for a month before you judge; it is not nearly as easy as it sounds. To give you an idea of how much salt is in that food…it was 2 weeks after we ended the challenge that I could lick my lips and not taste salt! I saw firsthand how a lack of food could lead to several problems. Imagine this with kids, not being able to get them more because if you get more food you can’t pay rent and you won’t have a place to live. How do you make these tough life choices?

How do we need a food bank in a place that has so many jobs? Well not everyone in Fort McMurray makes a living wage. I was lured here with what I thought was lots of money compared to what I was making in Nova Scotia, but when my wife and I got here we saw that we were barely making ends meet. Both of us working in broadcasting and we easily qualified for aid from the food bank, but we made it through saving every penny to make it. There are lots of people who are down on their luck, some people can’t get enough work, and some don’t make a living wage at the jobs they do get. Not everyone has one of the Oilsands jobs; we have lots of positions in Fort McMurray that don’t make the big salaries. These people need some help, and after attempting to eat out of a food hamper and being unsuccessful, I know how hard it is to keep a positive outlook on life.

Next time you are asked to donate to the food bank, it’s not a free hand out, it’s for people who need a hand up to get back on track, and remember you never know when your situation can change. You could have a well-paying job, get hurt and have not enough in savings and next thing you know you will be at the door of the food bank. Think about that when you are making a donation as well, and give the stuff you would like to eat if you were going to have to eat it. Get low sodium food, healthier choices. Don’t just grab the “food bank ready” bags, or just get some tomato soup or mac and cheese, put a little thought into your choice to help out. You are making a huge change in someone’s life with your donation, make it count!


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