Regina Food Bank helping more people than ever 40 years after opening

Regina Food Bank helping more people than ever 40 years after opening
Regina Food Bank helping more people than ever 40 years after opening

When Sarah Wilson moved to Regina from Ontario seven years ago to ensure her family would be all together, she needed support.

Wilson had just left a relationship and was raising her five daughters alone.

“I just fell into this small gap,” said Wilson. “I wasn’t getting the benefits because I had separated. Child tax had already stopped. I think our monthly budget, looking back, was $165.”

She turned to the Regina Food Bank.

With a little one still in diapers and a budget that did not make ends meet, Wilson said the food bank hampers kept her fridge from being empty.

“I used it about three times during that period, until I could get all the paperwork in order and fill in some of those gaps and just get back to do what I needed to do,” said Wilson.

A woman with shoulder length brown hair and a black shirt sits in a green fold out chair in park.
Wilson followed one of her daughters to Regina from Ontario seven years ago. (Germain Wilson/CBC)

Now, as a regular weekly volunteer at the food bank, Wilson gives back the help she received.

“I always let anybody who comes to know I used to use the food bank too,” said Wilson.

“I could possibly one day have to use it again.”

A temporary solution to a hunger problem

When the Regina & District Food Bank cut the ribbon at its grand opening on June 27, 1983, it was just the second food bank in Canada. Edmonton incorporated its own in 1981.

Regina’s food bank was supposed to be a temporary solution to food insecurity at a time of high inflation.

It worked out of the basement of the Regina Rent-It Centre, but demand was so great that within a year the food bank moved to the Co-op Dairy Building on the corner of Albert Street and Saskatchewan Drive.

A warehouse building with a sign that says food bank above the door.
Increasing need led the Regina Food Bank to move to this location at 1806 Albert Street, on the corner of Saskatchewan Drive, in 1984. (CBC News)

Donations grew so much that it moved twice in the next two decades, first to 2201 First Avenue and then to its permanent home at 445 Winnipeg Street.

The demand for help has only continued to increase, and with it the need for volunteers.

Betty Donald, a former registered nurse, spends three days a week volunteering at the food bank.

“I had to find another way to help people and the food bank was willing to give me a chance.”

Donald lost her sight and suffered three brain tumors that ended her nursing career. She started helping out at the food bank in 2017, and now has regular shifts every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. She said the people kept her coming back.

“We’ve got amazing people who are all here for the same reason, to help,” said Donald.

  An older woman with short gray hair, glasses and wearing an apron is being interviewed in a warehouse.
Donald says the food bank has accommodated her vision challenges, setting up a safe work area for her to contribute each shift. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

The Regina Food Bank recorded more than 14,000 hours of volunteer work in May 2023. Former food bank CEO Wayne Hellquist said it was all done in the spirit of food bank founder Ed Bloos.

“[Bloos was a] pretty unique individual in the scene that was able to inspire people get them engaged and share his vision with them, share his view of the world,” said Hellquist.

Hellquist took over for Bloos in 2004 and was the helm for about a decade. During his time, Hellquist gradually added other services such as a library, a kitchen, a grocery store and pre-employment programs, some of which continue today.

He shared Bloos’s vision to help the hungry people of the Queen City, maybe to the point that one day the food bank would become obsolete. Hellquist continues to serve on boards that provide input to food banks around the world.

“The programming piece for me was crucial,” he said. “Recognizing that we could be more than just a place for people to pick up food.”

Growing community outreach

In its first year of operation, Regina’s food bank fed 557 families, distributing 804,000 pounds of food. Fast forward 40 years and 14,204 people were served during May 2023, with a total of more than 13,000 pounds of food distributed daily.

Supporting children is a big part of the food bank’s mission. Angela Hutton, principal at Albert Community School, calls the food bank’s services a relief.

A woman with short blonde hair and black glasses is wearing a black and white top with a black overtop blazer.
Hutton says nothing is taken for granted by the students at Albert Community School. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Hutton has been instrumental in developing a weekend take-home snack program for students since she became principal three years ago.

“Our first year we tried to run it on our own by getting grants,” she said.

“Then the food bank stepped in and said, ‘You know what? We are here to help you out and we will help support you by bringing in the food.'”

The food bank delivers to Albert Community School every Wednesday and a team of senior students help distribute the packages to each classroom before the weekend. Every child gets a pack.

“Usually we just pack them with all the same snacks as the others, and then once we’re done we go to all the different classrooms and give them the amount that they need,” said Grade 8 student Kyla Fourhorns.

Three girls, two in gray shirts and one in a purple shirt with glasses, are standing and sorting through a table with boxes full of food.
Community sponsors provide the food for lunches and snack packs at Albert. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

A typical snack pack contains items like porridge, goldfish and apple sauce.

“You’d think like oh they’re excited that there’s Oreos in the bag this week, and that’s a huge treat. But really, the applesauce or the fresh oranges are what the really big hit is,” said Hutton.

“They have these secret stashes of them, or they do trades afterwards on the playground or with their siblings, trading their favorite things.”

A classroom with multiple round tables has students sitting at each table with green bags of food in front of them.
At Albert Community School every student is offered breakfast, a hot lunch and a weekend snack pack. (Sarah Onyango/CBC)

Some of the students say the snacks are not only for them.

“I share with my mom, my dad and my siblings,” said Grade 6 student Promiise Laplante.

The take-home program began during the COVID-19 pandemic when teachers were worried students were not getting enough food without in-school meals.

Food banks and other programs serving vulnerable Canadians were expected to serve 60 per cent more people per month this year, according to a January report from Second Harvest.

Second Harvest is a national service that rescues food that might otherwise end up in landfills and redistributes it to those in need. Its 2023 forecast followed a year that saw a 124 per cent increase in people using non-profit food services.

According to its figures, food banks and other food-related programs across Canada served 5,141,481 people per month in 2022. That number is expected to climb to 8,208,679 by the end of 2023, a roughly 60 per cent increase. That’s compared to 2,196,238 per month before the pandemic.

Food banks aren’t going anywhere

While programs have ebbed and flowed with community needs, the demand for both food and support has only increased. The Regina Food Bank’s output has doubled in the last two years.

“I think we started out as obviously a temporary reaction to an ongoing problem, and now we are really sorting integrated into the social safety net of our city,” said John Bailey, current CEO of the Regina Food Bank.

A bald man in a white sweater is standing in a warehouse.
John Bailey has been CEO of the food bank for the past three years. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

The food bank is set to open a secondary food hub on Broad Street in downtown Regina in 2024.

Despite the new facility, Bailey does not want to see the number of people they serve continue to increase indefinitely.

“More food isn’t the solution to this problem, it’s about making sure that they have the means to sort of break the cycle of food insecurity.”

A warehouse with boxes of different food items and nutritional posters on the wall.
In the last two years, the food bank has more than doubled its output — a significant change from where it started 40 years ago. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Queen’s University professor Elaine Power has been studying food insecurity for 30 years. She said food banks were just a tip from the iceberg when assessing food insecurity in our country.

“Most people who are food insecure in Canada never go to a food bank, and even when they do go to the food bank they’re still food insecure.”

Power said one in four Canadians is food insecure. She said the only way we will truly see the end of food banks is if governments provide people with a basic income.

“It’s not going to solve all the problems,” said Power. “We’re still going to have a housing affordability crisis and there’s still going to be lots of other issues that need attention. But there’s some pretty clear evidence that if you increase household’s income they tend to be food secure.”

As long as food security persists, Power says food banks will not be able to fulfill the dream they had 40 years ago: to close because people don’t need them anymore.

That hits home for John Bailey.

“It’s an anniversary that people didn’t necessarily anticipate, or want to see happening,” said Bailey.

“That being said, we couldn’t do what we did for the past 40 years without the support of our community.”