PODCAST | April 18, 2023

The Cracked Egg: Arianna Scott, CEO of Food Banks Alberta, Episode 4 Summary

EFA: Egg Farmers of Alberta

FBA: Arianna Scott,  former CEO of Food Banks Alberta

Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

EFA: The topic of today’s episode centers around families and one very important food organization.

At Egg Farmers of Alberta our vision is Healthy Food, Healthy Farms, and Healthy Families and to achieve this, we have four core pillars with one of them being Healthy Communities. As proud members of the local community, we make it a priority to give back to those in need. Since 2016, we have partnered with Food Banks Alberta (FBA) and our staff and board of directors have dedicated their time and effort to volunteering at local food banks in Calgary and Airdrie. We also donate thousands of eggs every year to food banks Alberta, which distributes them to its member of food banks. In addition, we also provide free egg coupons. With 170 egg farms spread throughout the province, it is essential for us to support the communities where our egg farmers live and work.

The Healthy Families portion of our vision statement fits in perfectly today with who has joined us on The Cracked Egg, Arianna Scott, Food Bank Alberta’s Chief Executive Officer. Thank you for being here, Arianna.

FBA: Thank you for having me, Tate.

EFA: Can you give a little rundown as to what your organization is all about.

FBA: FBA is an industry association representing 113 food banks and food distribution organizations across the province. We represent those members through advocacy, and we support them with food funds and resources. We provide an annual conference that brings food bankers from across the province together to learn and share their experience and overcome barriers and share successes. We are always working to increase our membership to ensure that we are reaching as many food distribution organizations as possible.

EFA: And what was it that led you into wanting to be part of Food Banks Alberta?

FBA: I have quite a long history with FBA. I am the past executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank in Fort McMurray, Alberta and while I was the executive director there, I also sat on the board of directors for FBA. Moving on from that specific food bank, I decided to go try something new. Then an opportunity arose during the pandemic for me to join the FBA team in helping to manage the crisis and eventually moving into the CEO role. So, I joined FBA in this iteration, back in March of 2020.

EFA: You mentioned that there were 113 food banks in the province. How many of those are in rural area?

FBA: It depends on how you define rural, but about 75% of our membership represent rural communities, we do have members in the major urban centers as well.

EFA: And then would it be staff who would be running these centers or volunteers?

FBA: It’s about a 50/50 split between staff and volunteer run organizations. There was a shift during the pandemic, where some of our smaller volunteer run food banks, just because of the demographic of their volunteers, had to bring in a staff member.

In the very early stages of the pandemic, I had one food bank contact me and say every volunteer we have is over the age of 85, we need help. So, we help them to recruit volunteers, younger volunteers, as well as help them develop a job description and they did bring in a staff for a period of time. The hard part for most of those volunteer run organizations when they’re transitioning to being staffed is finding sustainable funding to be able to maintain that staff.

EFA: You mentioned helping them with recruiting. What other programs or services do you offer to support them?

FBA: We have some very specific programs. We have one called the Rural Assistance Grant, and that’s a grant up to $5,000 every two years and then we have some smaller grants around bulk food, purchasing and transportation. We provide policy template manuals and employ a consultant that does policy templates for us. We provide templates around governance. We provide them around human resources and operations. If you’re part of FBA, you become an affiliate member of Food Banks Canada, where they provide additional resources around policy and granting. We provide food to all of our members, not just our rural members. Every month we have what’s called the allotment program, where every food bank based on their size and the number of people they serve during the month of March in the previous year, they’re allotted a certain amount of the food that is in our warehouse.

EFA: Looking at your website, I noticed 3 key words that are Lead, Feed, and Share. Can you explain what each of those stand for?

FBA: Yeah, so Lead, Feed, Share is really the mantra our organization has run under since 2015/2016. It is really the basis and foundation by which we do everything, we also base our strategic goals off that. So, in the category of Lead, these examples of this would be our government advocacy. Being a trusted and expert voice to members and stakeholders in the community at large. Really helping our food banks identify best practices and implementation of those feed is about providing food and food best practices. As an example, we recently worked with Alberta Health Services to develop a food bank specific Alberta Health Services certified safe food handling training. Every food bank must take this training, and it has to be Alberta Health Services certified in order for them to get their food handling permit.

But the existing courses really are aimed at restaurants and grocery stores and aren’t super applicable to food banks because we operate very differently. There, it’s a costly training for a lot of organizations and so our work through feed and developing this training, we offer it free to our membership and they get an Alberta Health Services stamped certificate at the end of it. With Share, that is exactly what it says. It’s very similar to Feed only it’s about beyond food. It’s about whether we’re sharing funds or training resources. We hold regional networking events, at least four every year throughout the province where members can come together and share their experiences and their challenges and their successes and try to help each other. Those are really the foundation of everything we try to do, but we try to do it in a responsive way.

EFA: The last few years were truly unprecedented with the pandemic, and it really magnified a lot of things. How did it impact your operations?

FBA: It certainly made us grow very quickly. FBA has grown exponentially over the last four years. Through the pandemic, it has given us an opportunity to do some new and unique things for us, including an awareness campaign about the fact that food banks are an essential service. They don’t close during emergencies, if anything, they ramp up their operations. It gave us an opportunity to really build some new relationships and improve on relationships with large scale food donors. Increasing the amount of food going out to the network. As an example, in 2019, we distributed just over 300,000 pounds of food. In 2022, we distributed over 1.7 million pounds of food. The pandemic really gave us an opportunity to expand those relationships. It also gave us an opportunity to help our membership access and utilize a resource that we developed after the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray, and that’s a templated emergency preparedness and response plan that also has training attached to it. That is scalable to any sized food bank. Our membership has access to it for free as well as to the training that goes along with it for free. I think that it just gave our organization an opportunity to know better and do better.

EFA: Another challenge unfortunately that’s facing us right now is food inflation. It’s at a current high and more Albertans are feeling the pinch. How many more people are you seeing picking up hampers as a result?

FBA: Yeah, every year Food Banks Canada does a research study called Hunger Count, and it’s a snapshot of food bank usage in the country and across the country. We get a report for each province. The 2022 Hunger Count created a startling effect in Alberta. Our province has never been in the top. We’ve seen increases before, but they’ve been small compared to the rest of the country. However, if you look at 2019 numbers versus 2022 numbers, there was a 73% increase in food bank usage across the province and that’s more than double the national average. It was a startling reality for Albertans for sure. It is certainly exhibited and observed through the exhaustion that’s going on in our network. Food bankers are resilient, and they work really hard, and they tend not to say no, but it is overwhelming of our network and the services that it provides. We talk about food inflation, but it’s a perfect storm because it’s not just food, it’s housing, its transportation, it’s all these things coming together and colliding and the costs of each of them increase increasing so much that good healthy food is becoming a luxury that most families in today’s economy can’t afford. Because they have to make a choice between paying rent or buying food. That is why the numbers of people turning to food banks is increasing by so much.

EFA: 73%, that is quite a sharp increase. And I’m sure it speaks to the clientele too, that have come to food banks.

FBA: We certainly have some startling increases in different demographics, especially in our rural food banks. One of the things we’ve seen for a few years now is people on fixed incomes, people who are on pensions or disabilities, we’re seeing huge increases in the numbers attending food banks in rural Alberta of people with those kinds of incomes. We continue to also see an increase in families. Alberta has always had a high rate of single people accessing food banks. And so those increases aren’t as startling as our senior’s population and our population with disabilities that are accessing food banks, and this very much correlates with the increase in caseloads with programs.

EFA: Now are you seeing a consistency in terms of when there is an influx of demand, or is every month sort of going the same right now?

FBA: We have anecdotally heard from our members that the increase just keeps getting bigger. We won’t in fact know that information until Hunger Count for 2023 comes out, which is in October, but anecdotally our membership continues to say that they’re seeing increases month over month. That really varies for communities, some communities have had kind of a settling out, while other communities have seen a large increase. I think that it’s safe to say that overall, the whole province continues to be a really tough time for people.

EFA: There’s plenty of grocery store items that people can donate to food banks. I’m sure there’s ones that are way more requested than other others. Is it true that eggs are one of the most requested items at food banks?

FBA: I don’t know if they are the most, one of the most rest requested items of clients, they are certainly an item that our network is constantly requesting more of and trying to find ways to get at a better rate. It is one of the number one things purchased by food banks. We do have an egg program that distributes eggs across the province. However, there is still a need to purchase. Our larger food banks in particular purchase huge amounts of eggs every year. Eggs are one of those things that kids can cook. They’re a good source of protein and energy for kids and adults and they are certainly an item that most of our food banks try hard to provide to their clients.

EFA: For 2022, do you know how many that members received?

FBA: I do. Through our partnership with Egg Farmers of Alberta and Egg Farmers of Canada, we distributed 62,280 eggs that were donated!

EFA: And how important is it for food banks and families that they help feed to have eggs on the menu?

FBA: It’s a significant one. It crosses cultural barriers for the most part. No matter what ethnicity or culture a family is cooking from eggs are something that can be incorporated. Again, they are such a great source of protein and they’re easy for kids. They’re something that can be used for all three meals and so they hold an important place in a food bank hamper on behalf of the food banks or the Albertans who regularly use the food banks.

EFA: Is there a message that you would like us to pass along to the provinces egg farmers about their ongoing commitment to donating eggs to food?

FBA: I can’t express enough how often we get phone calls asking to, for programs to be added to the egg program for Food Banks Alberta, to be able to increase the availability of eggs and the gratitude that our members have for what they do get from this program. Certainly, with the cost of eggs going up, many food banks shop local because they shop on small scale. And they are often purchasing eggs and so any eggs that they get out of this program that are donated are so greatly appreciated. We have a constant demand from our membership to have food banks added to the program, due to the perishable nature of eggs.

Unfortunately, not all our members currently have access to the egg program. However, we are working on a solution for that through changing from fresh eggs being shipped out to egg coupons possibly. The gratitude that our membership has for this program and the eggs that they do receive for it is astronomical and just really can’t be put into words other than thank you. Thank you for being our partners in trying to provide people with basic necessities.

EFA: That’s awesome to hear and we are very happy to be partners with you!

What other couple food items are always in demand at your centers?

FBA: Oh proteins. Proteins are the number one requested item. When people think about food banks, they often think about canned goods, but most food banks today also give out perishables and cleaning supplies and hygiene items and we don’t necessarily think about that when we think about food banks, but what we need to remember is for lots of family, the food bank is the only grocery store they’ll get. We need to think about what we buy at a grocery store – toilet paper, paper towel, but the nutrition products are also important. Looking at when you are donating food, is this something that can create an actual meal or is this just something that’s going to fill a belly? Looking at chunky soups rather than just broths and things like that.

EFA: Now, here’s a question I’m sure you get asked a lot, but what are some other ways that people can help support the food bank if they aren’t able to donate?

FBA: Donate your time. If you are a gardener or have a small farm, you can donate fresh perishable bowls. Please just make sure you take them directly to the food bank or contact your local food bank to make sure they can use them and that they’re there or if they can pick them up. And time, time and expertise. Time, manpower and awareness. Get educated about what your local food bank does and who they are and how they do it. Every food bank operates a little differently, but you being educated in how your local food bank operates is an amazing opportunity for when meeting someone on the street or in the grocery store who’s struggling to pay that bill, or you talk to someone in your work or your other volunteer opportunities who’s struggling, letting them know that it’s okay and that the food banks are there to help.

EFA: Now, if we are donating food, one thing that I would wonder about is food that’s close to expiring. If I have canned food, can I still donate it to a food bank?

FBA: You can, best before dates and expiry dates are an interesting and complicated topic. We do ask that people try not to donate expired food. I was the worst offender when I first started working at food banks. My very first day, one of my staff was throwing something out and I was like, what are you doing? And she’s like, it’s expired. And I said it’s a can, but every can depending on the type of food, has a certain amount of time beyond the date that’s on it, that it’s viable, and then we have to throw it out.

The number one problem is that when you hear, when Johnny comes home from school and says, mom, we’re doing a food drive at school. Mom goes to the cupboard and just sweeps the shelf of cans off, that’s been there for 10 years, sends it to the school and food banks. Then food banks spend a lot of time reading expiry and best before dates. It is an exacerbating exercise but through a little bit of education, we can help people understand that. And, in Fort McMurray, when I first started up there, we were throwing out 40% of every food drive because it wasn’t viable, and we have to follow health standards.

Within five years when I left the food bank in Fort McMurray, we were throwing out less than 2% of our annual food and that it just is a little bit of education. There’s a great resource on Food Bank’s Canada website about what do the labels mean? How do you read them? What is a best before date? How long can things be used after that date and stuff like that. Best Before or Expired? Food Banks’ Questions Answered – Food Banks Canada

There are some foods, as an example, baby food and baby formula. It expires, anything with dairy in it will expire. Perishables will expire. But anything with a best before date on it, there is a time period beyond that date or a sell by date that the food is still viable. We just ask people to look at your canned goods and make sure that you are not donating food that is past. That food banks then not only have to throw out, but they have to pay for the waste management. We don’t really think about those types of costs when we’re thinking about charities, but if a food bank is throwing out a thousand tons of cans every year, what is the cost to that charity to do that? While you think you’re being helpful, you might not be.

EFA: That is a great point to make and a great way to close out today.

Thanks for listening to this episode. If you want to learn more about Food Banks Alberta, what programs they offer, where to find your closest food bank or donate, you can visit their website, https://foodbanksalberta.ca. We applaud the work that everyone at Food Bank’s Alberta has done and continues to do in our province, and thank you, Arianna, for joining us today.

FBA: Thank you so much for having us and thank you to the Egg Farmers of Alberta and all of your farmers for the support that you provide.