Food banks across Alberta have seen increases in usage over the last year, and the Okotoks Food Bank is among them.

They've seen a few months of non-stop high demand with no sign of slowing down, says Executive Director Pamela McLean.

"Typically, summer is our quieter time. There's not as much use of the food bank so we do our catch-up projects. That just absolutely didn't happen this year, it did not slow down in June or July. We expected it to ramp up in August, but it just really flew off the charts."

It built to a record-high in August, which always sees a bump in demand due to the school year anyway.

"In August 2022 we had 779 visits to our Help Yourself Shelf program, and that, roughly, was about 2,800 people that crossed that threshold. Last month, August 2023, this is an all-time record for visits to the Help Yourself Shelf program. 2,035 visits with over 7,500 crossing the threshold. That's not even including hampers, this is the program where you just show up at our door during operating hours."

McLean says 75 per cent of visitors last year were from the Okotoks area, which is down to 60 per cent this year, with visits from people from Calgary, High River, and Diamond Valley.

They've also seen usage from many Ukrainian evacuees.

"We've never seen our shelves so bare. We haven't had to say no to anybody and currently, the Help Yourself Shelf program is open four days a week and there are no restrictions, so if a family had to come every day that we're open we say 'Fine, come,' we assume that the need is great. We haven't had to put any caveats on visits yet."

McLean says they've largely been leaning on their operating budget to keep things moving along, which isn't usually the case for their Help Yourself Shelf program.

"I am spending more and more on food purchases. Things we've never really had to purchase before like Kraft Dinner, peanut butter, baked beans. There was generally a surplus on those kinds of items through general community food donations. I appear to be buying absolutely everything to make sure there's something on the shelves for people."

She says a lot of clients are likely having to reach out for help for the first time, and the pressure is being felt by the staff.

"It's taking a real toll because they're feeling panicky. It's a very different dynamic right now. Normally clients wait their turn and line up graciously, sort of the feeling that they're all in it together. That's not there right now. It's such a desperate feeling, everyone is feeling such a need for help that they're forgetting about each other, it's taking a real toll on the team here. At a team meeting yesterday, it was only half-jokingly said 'Do we need to get a security person?' Just to try to calm down the tempers. There's just a really different feeling right now, people are desperate and they're showing it, and they're taking it out on the team here at the food bank. I'm quite concerned about my staff here as well."

For those looking to contribute donations to the food bank, their weekly "What's Needed Wednesdays" posts on Facebook and Instagram highlight the items they're most in need of, and monetary donations can be made through their website.

Food bins are also stationed in most Okotoks grocery stores as well as the rec centre and Home Depot.

They've also got a major annual food drive event coming up.

"We certainly are counting the days to the annual food drive, which, this year, is taking place on Saturday, September 23rd. That is organized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The food bank supplies them with the bags, and the church members do everything else. They deliver the bags to houses in the community, they pick up the bags on September 23rd and drive them back here to the food bank. I have my fingers crossed that we're going to get at least 30,000 pounds of food donated this year. We need it."


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