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The Syncrude Food Drive at 25: A Community Success Story

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There are a variety of reasons that people find themselves at the front doors of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank.

There are some who have unexpectedly found themselves in a tough financial position whether it’s from unexpected bills or a lost job.

For others, the food bank is what helps them bridge the gap between pay days.

Then there are some who, for the first time in their life, had to turn to the food bank when returning to Fort McMurray following evacuation and had a real need for help to put food on the table.

No matter the reason, clients are thankful the food bank was there to help them and thankful for people’s generosity to keep those shelves stocked.

That generosity is what helps the food bank provide its essential service to the community.

A big part of that generosity happens thanks to the annual Syncrude Food Drive, a community endeavour that has helped feed this community for 25 years …. and still counting.

“There were many years where it was touch and go, and the generosity of this community is the only thing that has kept the food bank alive all these years,” points out Arianna Johnson, the food bank’s current executive director. “Funding through grants is scarce for food banks so it is only through donations that we are able to do what we do.

It’s human nature to want to put a ‘face’ to an issue to help identify with the purpose of a particular social profit, but that is sometimes a misnomer.

“There is no face of hunger,” says Johnson, who has been with the food bank for six years.

“Every year there are many different faces and demographics of those struggling with food security, especially in this region.”

Traditionally, food bank users are the working poor, the disabled, the unemployed, single parents and rural residents who don’t have access to nutritious food.

“I would say the only addition to that as of recently, are those who lost it all in many of the disasters and emergencies that have happened in the last six years from apartment fires to floods to the wild fire.

“The face of hunger is your neighbour,” describes Johnson. “It is your co-worker. It is your client; your family. It could be anyone and for any reason. It could be a two-income household that has a sudden illness that requires travel for treatment. It could be a family who has had a sudden death that is paying for a funeral. It could be a retiree whose rent is well beyond their pension. There is no one face of hunger. It could happen to any of us.”

Johnson’s words echo comments of Jeanine Colley, the food bank director in the 1990s.

In an interview dated about 1993, Colley had said the ratio of new users to repeat users was formerly about two for every 10. At the time of the interview, there were almost as many new clients coming in as repeat users. These new clients lived in what some had considered to be the more affluent areas of Fort McMurray such as Thickwood, Beacon Hill and Dickinsfield.

“Right now, we’re seeing areas we never saw before,” Colley noted. “(What) people have to understand is that poverty doesn’t have a face, it doesn’t have a colour ... it’s out there. You don’t know if it’s the neighbour across the street or your daughter’s friend.”

Colley had made these comments at a time when the food bank was in crisis; a time so dire, it was actually facing closure.

That’s because its predecessor started by postal workers in 1986 was forced to end. Jokingly referred to as the Break My Back campaign, the letter carriers would deliver pamphlets to households encouraging them to leave food donations on their doorstep for collection. During the food drive, the carriers would be weighed down with the food donations as they walked their routes. Eventually the loads became just too heavy for them to carry and the collection ended in 1992.

The program’s end coincided with growing unemployment and declining social assistance provided by the federal and provincial governments.

Colley knew something had to be done, that a new way to collect donations needed to be introduced to keep the shelves full. Taking more direct action to organize community support, she approached Kelly Boyd, the then manager of radio stations CJOK and CKYX, to deal with the crisis. The station already had a record of community involvement having inaugurated its Marathon of Hope.

Their collaboration picked up where Break My Back ended, organizing a food and cash drive with the radio stations doing all the promotion.

That first food drive eliminated any concerns Colley had about community support. Reeling from the unprecedented generosity of McMurrayites, she knew it as enough to continue providing service.

The success of the inaugural food drive made it an annual event. It gained further momentum the second year when the CJOK/CKYK Radio Group teamed up with Wilson Industries, a key involvement that has continued with H. Wilson Industries providing the means to collect the donations and transport to the warehouse.

Today, the Syncrude Food Drive is still going strong, but that’s not to say it hasn’t faced its share of challenges such as falling woefully short of its fundraising goals and being the victim of thefts. It has also enjoyed triumphs such as surpassing fundraising goals in some years and being the recipient of significant individual donations – some anonymous.

One of the most remarkable food drives was in 2016.

With 20,000 people missing from Fort McMurray, the economy crippling families and the region, and the cost of the wildfire, the food bank had readied itself for a decline in donations.

“However, in true Fort McMurray style, when the call went out, the community responded as they have so many times before, and I am sure they will again,” said Johnson.

There have been some changes through the years such as at the turn of the century, when the CJOK/CKYK Radio Group introduced a kick-off event. Then in 2005, Syncrude Canada Inc. stepped forward to make the Corporate Challenge a greater success. These changes continue to shape the format of the annual Syncrude Food Drive.

Food bank staff work tirelessly to ensure the success of the food drive alongside valued volunteers who, depending on the weather, have stood outside of grocery stores shivering in frigid temperatures collecting donations.

And it’s not always the grown-ups as some of Fort McMurray’s younger residents have also lent a hand at collections such as  Evan Hamilton and teammates Taylor Bulbuc, 11 and Kennedy Dirk, 12, from the peewee AA minor hockey team in 2009. It was one simple reason they helped: “Our community supports us a lot so we want to support them, too.” A similar sentiment had been voiced by John Wilson for his company’s involvement: “I feel that it’s important to give back to the community that has given me so much.”

Even when the community has been hurting, it has responded to calls for help. For example, in the grips of a recession in 2008/09, there was an overwhelming support from residents highlighting Fort McMurray as “an amazing, generous, caring place.”

As Fort McMurray was reeling from the devastating Horse River fire, the 2016 food drive kicked off with Syncrude making a record-breaking donation of $200,000, over double its pledge from the previous year.

“Our region has shown its resiliency in coming together during the wildfire and the continued recovery,” said Mark Ward, Syncrude President and CEO, in announcing the donation.

He also praised the volunteers saying “volunteers including more than 150 Syncrude employees and their families collect food and cash donations at grocery stores and other retailers across the region. The food drive helps provide immediate food needs for residents while working towards long-term solutions to hunger and poverty.”

Even with the support and growing awareness of hunger issues, Johnson admits that the stigma around food bank use still exists though much less than previously.

“In the last six years, we have increased the visibility of not just the issue of hunger, but of the food bank and educated the community about the reasons why a family may need us and that there is no shame in seeking assistance.

“There is still a ways to go, but it certainly has decreased and especially after the fire when the food bank offered re-entry support services to any and all who needed it without question.”

Through the years, the Corporate Challenge and Syncrude Food Drive have become critical components of the relationship between the food bank and all members of the community. This is driven by the growing need for the food bank services and the growing willingness of individuals, unions, corporations, social clubs, schools and churches to make a contribution to its success.

And that all important relationship will ensure the success of the Syncrude Food Drive for another 25 years.


One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.