Volunteers the engine behind food bank

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Community involvement in a common good keeps the wheels spinning.

Countless donations and a dedicated team of volunteers are the engine behind an increasingly important place in the community – the Okotoks Food Bank Association.

“We have four sorting sessions every week and have volunteers that come in here every single week and go through the food, do re-packaging for us,” said food bank executive director Sheila Hughes. “If we get items in bulk we make them into smaller, more divisible and usable packaging. They make sure the shelves are stocked. We have volunteers that make pick ups from grocery stores or food drives. We have a pretty amazing team of volunteers here that support us.”

The food bank is one of eight charities supported by the Western Wheel Cares campaign this year.

Carol Nerland stepped up as a food bank volunteer three years ago after dedicating several years in service to the Okotoks minor hockey community.

“You’re serving your community in a different way and the need for your volunteerism is different,” she said. “The food bank can’t run without volunteers and everyone is very appreciative of what you do, whether it’s clients, it’s Sheila or the volunteers I work with. We’re all here for a common cause and a common good.”

During the busy winter months, Nerland is typically inside the food bank four to five hours per week. Her responsibilities include running two to four sorting sessions per seven days, overseeing food movement in the warehouse, conducting inventory on the shelves and what she called tidying up loose ends.

Through three years with the association she’s learned about the myriad of factors that can lead people to require food bank services.

“I was really unaware of how many food bank clients might have health issues, how many might just use the food bank once in a year,” she said. “There’s a misconception that food bank users might be habitual users, but we have a lot of people who don’t use the maximum number of hampers in a year. .

“They can come from any walk of life and you feel glad you can help and you feel humbled for how grateful you are to be able to feed your own family.”

Despite the perception the province is slowly climbing out of the recession, the demand on the Okotoks Food Bank continues to increase. Overall, demand is up 15 per cent from last year.

“Although lots of news comes out that we’re crawling out of the recession or the economic downturn we’re not seeing that here on the frontlines,” Hughes said. “It is concerning, it is hard for so many people. They either didn’t get their full-time hours back, they’re working two or three part-time jobs, or still just out of work. The number of people we have that have no income is quite alarming.

“It’s a very difficult thing to make that phone call to the food bank or walk through our doors even. It’s very difficult out there right now. They’re making the decision do I pay my mortgage or rent this month or my utilities? Do I buy diapers? Do I buy my child shoes? Or do I put food on the table?”

Nutrition becomes especially important for those dealing with the stressors of joblessness, lack of disposable income or a plethora of other factors. The food bank has made a major push towards providing more fresh food to its clients over the past 12 months. Funds raised from Wheel Cares will go towards the purchase of fresh produce to be included in hampers.

“We’ve really been working hard this year at improving the amount of fresh food we supply our families,” Hughes said. “Monetary donations are very welcome and this is why the donations we receive through the Western Wheel Cares campaign really help us.

“We’ve increased, by probably about 45 per cent, the amount of fresh food in our hampers. We buy fresh vegetables, fresh food, every week. Dairy products and yogurt, cheese and meat.

“We work really hard to make sure wholesome nutritious meals are put on the table.”

Those efforts have been boosted by a number of supporters throughout the year from schools to church groups to teams in the community. Okotoks has always stepped up for the food bank.

“We’re always so well supported,” Hughes said. “I have to say Okotoks is an amazing community and it goes out of its way and over and above to support the people that really need help.”

To donate to Western Wheel Cares, please call the Western Wheel office Monday to Friday from 9-5 p.m. (403-938-6397) to make a donation using your credit card.

We also accept debit, cash and cheques (payable to ‘Western Wheel Cares’), either dropped off at the office, 9 McRae Street or mailed to Box 150, Okotoks, AB T1S 2A2 (please do not mail cash). Or visit www.westernwheel.com to donate using PayPal.

All donations of $10 or more will receive a 2017 official tax receipt at the end of the campaign.

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