Terrace Churches Food Bank volunteers preparing for one of its regular monthly distributions in this file photo from 2018. (File photo)

Area food banks receiving emergency grants in response to COVID-19 impacts

A provincial grant has been the first to be distributed

An emergency provincial grant of $3 million for food banks in B.C. has been quickly flowing to northwestern B.C. food banks along Hwy16 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Announced in mid-March using monies from gaming revenues collected by the province, this week will be the third allocation to food banks who apply by a Tuesday deadline for a Thursday distribution.

The intent is to provide approximately $1 million a week for three weeks to food banks who are members of Food Banks B.C., the umbrella organization representing food banks.

There are eight food banks from Vanderhoof to Prince Rupert who are members.

Food Banks B.C. executive director Laura Lansink said the provincial money is available as well to any organization providing food support.

“We were very pleased the province responded in such a quick fashion,” she said of a request made to it immediately following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food banks are receiving requests for food not only from regular clients but from people who were affected by job loss, lay offs and business closures, Lansink added.

“For some people, to lose one paycheque or two, that can set them back six months to a year,” she said, noting that unexpected larger expenses can also affect families.

“Something can happen out of the blue with people are in a very precarious position.”

Lansink did add that the level of demand does vary from food bank to food bank and that not all have indicated they need immediate financial assistance.

But past this time of the immediate impact of COVID-19, she’s forecasting food banks will play an increasingly important role.

Lansink said while Food Banks B.C. has sent out three rounds of emails to inform members of the provincial monies, it will be reaching out again to reinforce availability.

“I don’t want to keep it,” she added in repeating that the intent is for a speedy distribution.

To qualify food support groups have to have federal charitable status, have had to be in operation for at least one year and distribute multiple days’ worth of food products at each distribution time.

They also cannot have a means test of requiring financial information or employment records, something Lansink said Food Banks B.C. supports.

“Overall we respect the dignity of people. The need takes precedence,” she said.

Lansink was not at the immediate liberty to say how much money is going to each area food bank.

Aside from the immediate provincial grant, Food Banks B.C. is waiting to hear how much it will receive from a federal grant flow-through to the national Food Banks Canada organization.

Food Banks B.C. has received an initial $390,000 from Food Banks Canada, Lansink said.

The federal food support grant is $100 million with Food Banks Canada being allocated $50 million and the remainder going to established food distribution agencies such as the Salvation Army and Second Harvest.

Provincially, the Salvation Army is deciding this week how it will allocate its federal money within B.C.

Several food banks contacted along Hwy16 have confirmed they’ve applied to Food Banks B.C. and to other food support streams.

That includes the Terrace Churches Food Bank, the Salvation Army in Smithers and Houston, which runs a food bank for both communities, and LINK in Burns Lake, a family services agency.

“We’ve been applying to everyone,” said Adam Marshall, the Salvation Army’s person responsible for its community ministry in Smithers and Houston.

“And we continue to have tremendous local support; it’s amazing,” he added.

In addition to its regular distribution program for Smithers and Houston, theArmy has a mobile unit which supplies meals, provides food for school students and now has a new program underway providing meals for a temporary camp for Smithers and area homeless.

He estimates between 28 and 40 families are being assisted through its regular distribution and between 25-50 people each time are being fed through its thrice-weekly mobile unit.

This week was the Terrace Churches Food Bank’s regular monthly distribution period. Surprizingly, demand was down, says Steve Sawatzky, its president.

“We distributed to 263 households, working out to 640 people for 9,204 pounds of food product,” he said, adding that the household description includes single people as well as families.

That’s down approximately 100 households and 300 people, Sawatzky said.

“We’re thinking some people may have stayed at home because they are isolating and others have just received their [federal] emergency allowance,” he noted.

In Burns Lake demand has been up for both the static food centre and the mobile distribution unit operated by LINK, reports Candice Little its food centre manager.

“We’ve seen an increase of about 60 per cent from our mobile unit and 30 per cent so far at the food centre,” she said.

The mobile unit travels across Francois Lake south of Burns Lake to Grassy Plains and west to Granisle, Topley and Tachet.

“We’re very appreciative of the federal and provincial support but we’re concerned about the long term, the effects [of the COVID-19 pandemic], Little said.

Various companies and organizations within the northwest have also been contributing to local food banks.

CityWest, a Prince Rupert-based regional provider of television, phone and internet services, last week announced it was sending $24,000 to the food banks in the six communities in which it does business.

Company official Chris Armstrong said the money was divided evenly between the food banks in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Kitimat, Hazelton, Smithers and Houston.

There’s also been a huge response to a $40,000 grocery store gift card distribution program set up by Coast Mountain College.

College official Sarah Zimmerman said all of the money has now been used in purchasing the $250 cards for its students.

Half of the money came from a non-profit foundation and half from an existing college employee dedication program meant for student scholarships and bursaries.

Zimmerman said the gift cards were an immediate way to provide help for all students in recognizing that many have part time jobs now affected by business closures or reductions in operating hours.

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